Sichuan Food!!

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:23 am by Benjamin Ross

The legendary streetfood of Chengdu may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot of good stuff to eat in the Sichuan Basin.  Here are some of the highlights from restaurants and 大排档s in Chengdu and Chongqing.

I’m never really sure how to translate 大排档 into English.  It’s sort of like an outdoor restaurant, which isn’t actually a real restaurant.  There’s a nearly full kitchen, but one that can easily be taken down and set back up again in the time it takes the 城管 (or police) to meander through the street.  This one was in Chongqing.
水煮鱼, or as I translate it “chopped up fish boiled in a ridiculously spicy brothy soup along with bits of cabbage.”
回锅肉, spicy pork belly.  It’s basically Sichuan style stir-fried bacon.
Here are some street snacks from Chengdu.  Of course they can now only be found inside of bona fide restaurants.
宫保豆腐  Kung Pao Tofu
水煮牛肉, same as the spicy fish above, except this time with beef
This is a Sichuan-ish version of 松子鱼, or as I call it “the inside-out fish.“  It isn’t really Sichuan food per se, but it looked too delicious in the picture on the menu, so we had to order it.
Here’s a Sichuan classic which is hard to find outside of the region:  stir-fried sticky rice.  I forget what this is called in Chinese.  Anybody know?
And finally, this is a bowl of 牛肉面 (beef noodles).  It’s a dish found virtually anywhere in China, but in Sichuan it has a regionalized spicy kick to it.  I had previously assumed that Sichuan, like most of the South, was solidly rice country.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the noodles available.  The diversity of food in this country never ceases to amaze me, and this was only the tip of the iceberg.



Geography Class Fieldtrip: Chicago to the Mississippi River

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 12:38 pm by Benjamin Ross

These pics are from a Historical Geography Class that I TA for called Changing America in the 20th Century taught by Prof. Michael Conzen at the University of Chicago. The 2-day trip, “Chicago to the Mississippi River,” was designed by Prof. Conzen, who came along as our tourguide. Along the route, we made stops in Warrenville, Aurora, De Kalb, Rochelle, Oregon, Grand Detour, Sterling-Rock Falls, Moline, Davenport, Rock Island (where we stayed the night), Arsenal Island, Augustana College, Cambridge, Bishop Hill, Kewanee, Princeton, and La Salle, all in 36 hours. For the class, each student has to do a research paper chosen from a list of topics, each connected to one of the towns along the field trip. At each stop, the student whose paper was connected with the site gave an 8 minute presentation on their research findings.

I-88 Research Corridor, Warrenville, IL
Transit Center, Aurora, IL
DeKalb, IL
old stretch of brick highway, near Rochelle, IL
Ogle County Courthouse, Oregon, IL
China House, Oregon, IL (the local Chinese restaurant….run by Fuzhou migrants)
more Oregon
industrial brownfields, Sterling, IL
John Deere Pavilion and Visitors Center, Moline, IL
Downtown Moline
Rhythm City Casino, Davenport, IA
Centennial Bridge, connecting Rock Island, IL and Davenport, IA
Government Bridge, also connecting Rock Island and Davenport
The Davenport SkyBridge
inside the SkyBridge
student presentations inside the SkyBridge
Davenport Skyline
Downtown Rock Island
student presentations along the bank of the Mississippi River in Rock Island
Augustana College, Rock Island, IL
Government Bridge, viewed from Arsenal Island
a short, 1-block boulevard from the City Beautiful Movement, in the small town of Cambridge, IL
Henry County Courthouse, Cambridge, IL
student presentations in Cambridge
Cambridge “College Square”
P.L. Johnson’s Dining Room, a taste of Sweden in Bishop Hill, IL
Good’s Furniture Store, Kewanee, IL
lock on the abandoned Hennepin Canal
The Hegeler Mansion, Lasalle, IL
the road back to Chicago




Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:35 pm by Benjamin Ross

Two hours outside of Krakow, Poland is the small town of Oświęcim, better known by its infamous German name Auschwitz–namesake of the concentration camp located just outside the town.  Scholars disagree on exact figures, but it’s estimated that anywhere from 800,000 to 4 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and its neighboring camp Birkenau between 1942 and 1944.

All visitors who arrive at Auschwitz after 9 am need to join a tour group.  If you arrive before 9, you explore the area on your own, and in relative quiet.  I arrived at 8 am, and was greeted by this eerie fog at the notorious front gate.  The German reads “Work makes free.”
Much of Auschwitz has been restored and rebuilt, but in a way which so as to preserved the setup of the camp.  Most striking for me were the barbed wire fences which surrounded the entire area.
Most of the barracks have been converted to museum exhibits.  My impression was that the exhibits were geared primarily towards a local audience, serving as a documentary of what happened on the grounds.
Auschwitz wasn’t originally designed as a Nazi extermination camp, but rather was built by the Polish army as military barracks.  After the Nazis invaded Poland, they decided Auschwitz would be an ideal location to house their growing population of prisoners, and facilitate Hitler’s “final solution.”
Located a 10 minute bus ride away from Auschwitz is the site which came to be known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau.  While Auschwitz served primarily as a prison and labor camp, Birkenau was designed specifically as a human extermination facility.  This was very apparent by the layouts of the camps.  The picture above is the front gate of Birkenau.  A railroad, built to ship prisoners in cattle cars, led through the hole in the middle and inside of the camp.
The railroad spanned the entire length of the camp from front to back, a length of over a mile.
The end of the railroad led directly to the gas chambers (not pictured) so that those not deemed fit for labor could be gassed immediately.  On either side of the railroad were long stretches of barracks which housed prisoners.  When the Nazis realized that World War II was coming to a close, they burned the barracks as a means to destroy evidence of the mass exterminations.  For most of the barracks, all that remains are the brick chimneys and a rectangular outline where they once stood.
Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau does not have many museum exhitits.  Rather, most restoration efforts have focused on preserving the site in situ.
Here is one of the buildings which remain standing.
…as well as a lookout tower and the remains of a sewage facility.
This is the inside of one of the barracks.  I it’s a reconstruction, but it shows the types of quarters in which prisoners had to live.  These are the sleeping quarters.  As many as 8 prisoners would be jammed into a single section at once.  In such close quarters, lice and disease-bearing pathogens were rampant.
The end of the railroad tracks.  The gas chambers would have been directly behind.
Here is what is left of one of the gas chambers.  Like the barracks, the Nazis destroyed the gas Birkenau chambers when it became apparent that the war was coming to a close.  Restoration efforts have focused on preserving the remains to the greatest extent possible.
another one of the gas chambers
A final shot from Birkenau.  Never Forget.



Central Europe: What I ate.

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:13 pm by Benjamin Ross

Food!  Can’t ever seem to get enough of it.  Here are the gastronomic highlights from my 2012 trip through Scandinavia and Central Europe.

This was one of my favorite Scandinavian fast food discoveries:  smörgåsbord.  I couldn’t tell you how to pronounce all those accent marks, but this stuff is delicious, and uber-portable taboot.
Smörgåsbord is sold in specialty shops all over Copenhagen, and consist of a slice of bread covered with a wide variety of toppings including various permutations of potatoes, cheese, fresh fish, deli meat and vegetables.  Great to eat on the go.
Denmark also has a respectable hot dog stand scene, as exemplified by this neighborhood stand in Dragor, a small town just outside of Copenhagen.
Here’s a Danish take on the hot dog, covered with pickles and fried onions.
Moving on now, you would have to have your head in the sand not to notice the plentiful, cheap, delicious, Turkish food options all throughout the EU.  Here’s a shawarma plate from Malmo, Sweden.
If I had to pick the country where I ate the best on this trip, it would probably be the Czech Republic.  One of my personal favorites was Svíčková, marinated beef sirloin served with onions and “dumplings.”  I use quotes because Czech dumplings aren’t the same rolled up meat and/or veggies normally thought of in an Eastern culinary context, but rather pieces of foamy bread, which can be used to soak up the savory sauces.
Another Czech dish–I have no idea what this is except that it consisted of pork, potatoes, and beans, and was delicious.
In terms of wining and dining, the Czech Republic is dirt cheap. I don’t think I spent more than $5 on a single meal in the Czech Republic, and most of these were consumed in somewhat fancy sit-down restaurants. But even more than the cheap food, the ridiculously low price of alcohol came as somewhat of a pleasant shock, and helps explain the amount of expat alcoholism which abounds in Prague.  Beers in Prague, good beers (Pilsner Urquel typically), in a bar, typically cost the equivalent of 1 US dollar. And to evoke the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction “I ain’t talkin’ about a no paper cup.  I’m talkin’ about a glass o’ beer.” (see picture above).  It is not uncommon for Czech restaurants to sell a glass of beer for literally half the price of a bottle of water.
And now here’s a Czech version of the portable bread slice covered with meat and veggies.
Back in the days of Czechoslovakia, the Reds weren’t too hot about allowing Coca-Cola to open shop within their empire.  So instead, they made their own cola, Kofola.  But Kofola is not simply a Coke/Pepsi knockoff.  It has its own unique Kofoly taste, and has survived the fall of communism, remaining a major player in the Czech soft drink market, now competing directly with Coke and Pepsi
Is Homer Simpson Czech?
mmm…Czech food
Last meal in the Czech Republic, this one in Plzen (namesake of my neighborhood in Chicago as well as Pilsner Urquel):  braised rabbit meat, greens, and a potato cake.
moving on now…to Slovakian ice cream in Bratislava
and just across the Austrian border to the Naschmarkt in Vienna
I couldn’t tell you what much of this stuff is, but it was fun to sample and oogle at.
It’s hard to tell by looking at it, but this was a complete meal from the Naschmarkt.  Austrian finger food is some of the richest stuff I’ve ever eaten.
Vienna is also quite the melting pot for various culinary traditions, as illustrated by this Asian-Turkish-Schnitzel joint.
Moving into Hungary now.  Let’s start with the Budapest markets.
Out of dumb luck, I wandered into this fantastic triple-tiered wet market, lined with streetfood-esque stalls on the Buda side of the city.  (Budapest was originally two separate cities:  Buda and Pest)


The more touristy market is located in Pest.  Still well worth a visit, despite the proliferation of gift shops and inflated prices.
Here’s what I ate at the market in Pest.  Don’t recall exactly what it was, but very “meat and potatoes.”
While in Budapest, I went on a walking tour of the city, and afterwords the tourguide offered to take those interested to a “regular, cafeteria-style, working class people’s meal.”  This is beef and mushrooms on the right, with a white, bread-like substance (not sure what you call this stuff) to go along.  On the left is the requisite Hungarian pickle plate.
Another simple, delicious, Hungarian meal, this one from the town of Sopron.  Notice the yellow pickled pepper on the right.  It’s stuffed to the brim with sauerkraut!  Four days in Hungary reaffirmed that when it comes to sausage making and pickling technique, the US is still way behind the curve.
Just like anywhere else in the world, McDonald’s is all over Hungary with it’s own localized line of specialty items such as the “Chicago Classic” and the “Miami Deluxe.”
One final meal shot from Budapest.  Again, I have no idea what this was, but it was delish, like most of what I ate in Hungary.
Next stop was Poland.  Here’s a market in Krakow.
…just like back home in Chicago
Here’s zapekanka, Poland’s answer to late night drunken pizza.
I have no idea what “zapekanka” translates to in English, but I’d imagine it means something along the lines of “toasted bread with melted cheese, sauce, and your choice of pork, beef, mushrooms, peppers, or any other topping imaginable.”
Here’s another zapekanka, with sausage and fried onions.
Another Polish delicacy, tartar:  raw beef mixed with raw egg, fresh onion, paprika, pepper, and a mustardy sauce.  Any fears of disease-bearing pathogens is easily washed away with a few shots of vodka.
Here’s something I didn’t expect to see:  Mike Tyson’s mug on the label of Polish energy drinks.
And what stay in Poland would be complete with out pierogi, the polish take on dumplings?
I mentioned before that Turkish food was a major theme in my European travels.  Here’s a “doner” from Berlin, which very well may have more Turkish restaurants per capita than any other city in the world not named Istanbul.
Berlin is a city with diverse food options, but I was particularly impressed by the various portable meat-based snacks.  I have completely forgotten what this was called, but it was some kind of fatty pork cutlet served in a BBQish sauce.
And then there was the famous Berlin currywurst.  I made sure to eat a good 3 or 4 of these before heading back home to my own glutinous part of the planet.

That’s it for food.  More to come in the way of sightseeing.



A Tale of Two Olympic Parks: London 2012, Berlin 1936

Posted in Olympics, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 8:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

Note to readers:  I want to give a brief apology to those who are still out there following this blog (I know there are a handful of you out there still).  During the past 4 months since the end of my Europe trip, I’ve been juggling a series of professional, personal, and academic priorities, and unfortunately the blog has fallen a bit behind on the list.  I’m attempting to straddle myself firmly back on the blogging wagon this month, and hopefully churn out the rest of the material from Central Europe this past September.  Thanks for sticking around.

Somewhat unpremeditated, my recent trip to Europe ended right where it began, sort of:  in an Olympic Park.  Needing to switch airports in London anyway, I opted to stagger my itinerary, allowing a full morning to explore the London 2012 Olympic Park…Yes, I am indeed well aware there is more to see in London than the Olympic Park, which is why it was the first stop on my trip in 2011. :)

The London Olympics had already finished by the time I hit the town, however the London Paralympics were in full swing, meaning the Olympic Park and most of its facilities were still operational.
Due to obvious security concerns, the Olympic Park was only open to those with tickets to events, which were all completely sold out.  Special “park only” tickets were sold as well for people who just wanted to look inside, peep around, buy t-shirts and mouse pads, etc, however those too were completely sold out as well.  In short, even seeing the park was a high demand ticket.  By some lucky fortune, I struck up conversation with a couple guys from Boston outside the park who gave me an extra ticket to women’s wheelchair basketball, which allowed for entrance into the park.
The only Olympic Parks I had previously seen were the fabulous, modern-marvel setup for Beijing 2008 and that massive aesthetic and financial eyesore left over from Montreal 1976.  London fell somewhere in the middle, probably closer to Beijing.
I spent most of my morning poking around the Olympic Park, scoping out the scene.
Fortunately my flight out of Stansted was late enough I was able to catch the first half of the wheelchair basketball match:  Germany vs. Mexico
The women on the wheelchair basketball teams had a wide range of disabilities including several amputees, and for the most part managed to provide an action-packed athletic showcase on their specially designed basketball-wheelchairs.
In between action, this guy in a pinked striped suit announced various contests and games with the audience along with the backdrop of “iconic” British music.  I’m pretty sure I heard that one Oasis song at least 3 times.
Here’s Team Mexico during a timeout.  Unfortunately I had to leave at halftime to catch my flight to Copenhagen, so I’m not sure who won.
Part of the idea behind having the Olympics in London was to rebuild parts of the historically working class East End, especially the area around Stratford Station near where the Olympic Park was located.  This included the construction of this gigantic pedestrian mall, just outside the gates of the park.
On the one hand, it’s unfair to compare London 2012 to Beijing 2008 since I wasn’t there during the actual London Olympics.  But I will say the whole feel of London 2012 lacked the excitement of the Beijing Olympiad.  When I had spent a few days in London the year before, there was hardly any buzz the impending Olympics other than the giant clock in Trafalgar Square.  In China on the other hand, not to mention Beijing, the entire country had been buzzing, gearing up, and sporting Olympic t-shirts years before the event ever happened.  A lot of this is context and makes for an unfair analogy.  Beijing is the center of a country rapidly rising to the center of the universe for the first time in over 1000 years   London has been at the center of the universe for much of the last 3 centuries.  This was also reflected in the size, scale, and opulence of the Olympic Parks, and in these regards, Beijing was far more grandiose.
76 years earlier, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin.  These were the infamous games were Adolph Hitler was the standing head of state, and much to his chagrin African-American Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals in track and field.  The Berlin Olympic Park is conveniently located along Berlin’s U-Bahn (subway) network, and with 3 days in the German capital to cap off my trip I figured I’d check it out.  (The brightly colored image above is the Olympic U-Bahn station).
I’ve always found two things especially interesting about the Olympic Parks:  1)  For about three weeks, they are the center of the world.  2)  After those three weeks are over, the physical space (and often much of its infrastructure) remains while the event it hosted is relegated to the annals of history.  What is done with Olympic Parks after the Olympics varies from case to case with a wide range of success and failure.
Today much of 1936 Olympic Park remains, leaving one of most beautiful historical sites I saw on my entire trip.  No doubt surpassed technologically by the Bird’s Nest and countless other 20th Century stadiums, looking out from the top deck of the Olympic Stadium it’s easy to imagine what an architectural wonder this must have been during the thick of the Great Depression.  (To be fair, there was a major renovation done at the beginning of the 21st Century)
Today, the Olympic Park is both a tourist attraction as well as a modern sports venue.  The Olympic Stadium still regularly hosts football matches (the European kind), including the World Cups of 1974 and 2006.
a view of the stadium from atop the Olympic Tower
The aquatic center
A view from below the Olympic Tower.  One of the more striking features of the Berlin Olympic Park was the stunning, uniformly grey concrete look of all the buildings which was surprisingly quite aesthetically pleasant.
I didn’t exactly plan it out that way, but starting my trip with the London Olympics, and ending it with a historical trip through the 1936 Games was a fitting way to cap off my trip with  some comparative historical perspectives.  It will be interesting to see what will remain of London 2012 in the decades to come (as I am already hearing that the Beijing Olympic Park has become somewhat of a ghost town).  Berlin seems to have done a fine job at both preserving their park and incorporating it into modern functional use, and maybe London will follow a similar path as well.  Time will tell.



Scandinavia Part 2: Malmo, Dragor, and Roskilde

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:27 pm by Benjamin Ross

Whenever traveling to a new city or region, I make it a point explore some of the outlying, less well-known, areas.  One perk of Copenhagen is the state-of the-art long distance rail transportation which makes inter-city travel quick, convenient, comfortable (and like everything else in Scandinavia, expensive).  Factoring in the exceptional English abilities of most urban Danes and Swedes, as well as some of the lowest crime rates in the world, and Lower Scandinavia makes an excellent travel destination, even for the inexperienced traveler.  For my brief exploration outside of Copenhagen, this included stops in Dragor and Roskilde in Denmark, and a jump over the Sond Oresund to Malmo, Sweden.

Like Detroit-Windsor and San Diego-Tijuana, the metropolitan region of Copenhagen stretches across international borders.  With the opening of the Oresund Bridge in 2000, Malmo, Sweden is now a quick 20 minute train ride from Copenhagen Central. The cities are more linked than ever, with many people choosing to live in Malmo for its cheaper rents, while maintaining jobs in Copenhagen.  The Swedish and Danish languages are close enough that a linguistic barrier does not exist, and no passport is needed to cross the international border, making Malmo’s incorporation into Greater Copenhagen a natural fit.
Presumably because of their high-level performing economies, neither Denmark nor Sweden use the Euro, instead maintaining their own unique currencies.  Therefore switching currencies is the only minor inconvenience travelers encounter when moving between the two countries.
I was told repeatedly that Malmo is “the most dangerous city in Scandinavia.”  Of course this is all relative, and with Scandinavia being arguably the safest region in the world (in terms of violent crime), this probably still leaves Malmo far safer than any city in the US, or even continental Europe for that matter.  In particular, I was told by several Swedes to stay away from the Arab areas of Malmo, especially considering my own nationality.  I’m not sure how much validity there is to these precautions, but these fears no doubt play into the minds of the locals.
With a walloping 302,835 residents, Malmo is the third largest city in Sweden, and due to its industrial past one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Scandinavia.
Malmo has its fair share of ultra-modern Euro-architecture, such as this colorful round building pictured here.
Especially of note is the “Turning Torso” the tallest residential building in Western Europe…located in Malmo.  Who’da thunk?
Like Copenhagen, bicycles are the preferred form of transportation in Malmo, as evidenced by this parking lot.
Malmo is small enough that its own subway system is not necessary, but regular commuter trains conveniently link the city to Copenhagen and other destinations in Sweden and Denmark.
And like Copenhagen, the trains and train stations are all sleek, clean, and modern.
Those unfamiliar (myself up to this point) tend to think of Scandinavia as an ethnically homogenous region full of tall, affluent white people with blonde hair, blue eyes, and perfect teeth.  While this isn’t entirely untrue, Scandinavia does have its fair share of immigrant communities, and Malmo is a prime example.
Around this market in the northern part of the city, there were market stalls and storefronts providing a wide variety of ethnic products.
particularly Chinese
and Arab
Here’s one of the more peculiar Chinese restaurant names I’ve ever encountered.  The Chinese reads “Asia-United States”
Here are a few more shots from my walk around Malmo.
some remnants of Malmo’s industrial past
and another church
There isn’t much in Malmo to warrant more than a day trip from Copenhagen, but as far as day trips go, it is well worth it, if anything to just get a quick view into Sweden.
Next up was a half-day trip to Dragor, Denmark, an old port town near the Copenhagen Airport.
Dragor was peaceful, and quiet, and a contrast to the big city, international vibe of Copenhagen.
a suburban home in Dragor
the old port
What would a trip to Scandinavia be without a nod to the Vikings?  My last stop on my brief stay in Scandinavia was Roskilde, home of the famous Viking Ship Museum.  Here’s a shot of historic Roskilde Station.  Built in 1847, it’s Denmark’s oldest rail station still in use.
Around the year 1070, 5 wooden Viking ships were deliberately sunk in Roskilde Fjord in order to block the sea route to Roskilde and prevent an enemy invasion.  The ships were discovered and excavated in the 1960s and though far from complete specimens, the ships represent the most well-preserved Viking vessels in existence.
The Roskilde Viking Museum was constructed specifically to house the 5 Viking ships and also includes several other peripheral exhibits on Viking history, as well as exhibits documenting the excavation and preservation of the ships.
They also have a shipyards where carpenters construct actual ships in the same fashion as the Vikings.
What I didn’t realize until I arrived in Roskilde, is that rather than being just a suburb of Copenhagen, it’s a fantastic, quaint little city, very much separate from the capital.
Roskilde is not big (just under 50,000 people) and most of the town is centered around this commercial pedestrian street.
Roskilde has a decent collection of funky little shops, such as this Red Cross themed boutique.
another shot of central Roskilde
This has to be my all-time favorite name for a Scandinavian Mexican restaurant.
another shot from the pedestrian street
In addition to the Viking Museum, Roskilde’s other famous attraction is the Roskilde Cathedral, one of Denmark’s most famous religious sites, and the first Gothic cathedral to be built of brick.
Here are more random tranquil shots of Roskilde streetscape.

Well, that wraps things up for Scandinavia.  Definitely a region of the world I would like to explore more extensively at some point.  More to come from Central Europe…



Scandinavia Part 1: Copenhagen

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 5:14 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, it’s been 3 months since my recent Europe trip wrapped up, and in keeping with tradition, I’m way behind on my blogging this time around.  The goal of my most recent trip was to explore central Europe, and especially those areas formerly behind the Iron Curtain.  But with a full month on the continent, I decided to indulge in Scandinavia for my first 4 days.  With some of the highest costs of living in the world, a more extended stay in Scandinavia probably would have broken the bank for this trip.  Nonetheless 4 days in Copenhagen and a few visits to smaller towns in surrounding areas of Denmark and Sweden was in apt introduction to the land of the Vikings.

Copenhagen is located in the center of a phenomenal long and short distance train network connecting points in Denmark, adjacent Sweden and beyond.
wandering around Copenhagen
The center of Copenhagen is tight and compact.  If you’re willing to walk distances, you can get nearly everywhere on foot.  However, locals will proudly inform you that the bicycle is the preferred method of transportation, even in the middle of winter.
By the standards of European capital cities constructed by over-indulgent monarchs, there are few extravagant buildings in Copenhagen.  And this is fitting.  Though one of the wealthiest nations in the world on a per capita basis, Danes impressed me with how rarely they appear to overtly show off their wealth.  This is probably an over-generalization, but the architecture appeared to reflect the culture in this regard.
The largest non-white ethnic immigrant group in Copenhagen are Arab immigrants, many of whom come from Iraq.  Although like most other major North American and European cities, there is still a Chinese restaurant in nearly every major commercial district.
Nørreport, the neighborhood where my hostel was located.
As one of the the capital of one wealthiest countries in the world, Copenhagen is also quite expensive.  My dorm bed in a youth hostel cost around $35/night, and prices of food and drink were probably about 1.5x as expensive as in a comparable US city.
As to be expected, Copenhagen is quite clean as well, and is home to some of the most sophisticated pay toilets I have seen anywhere, (outside of Japan of course).
more wandering around the center
more fancy, but not over-indulgent, Danish architecture
Christiansborg, the seat of the Danish Parliament and Supreme Court
now taking a modern turn
Copenhagan’s “Black Diamond,” the extension to the Royal Danish Library completed in 1999
library reading room, obviously not from the Black Diamond extension
more modern architecture along one of Copenhagen’s many canals
Copenhagen’s streets reminded me of Amsterdam, with street traffic divided relatively evenly among (left to right) private automobiles, public transit, bicycles, and pedestrians.
Copenhagen is also home to possibly the most modern, clean, smooth, and efficient mass transit I have ever ridden on.  With the majority of the city walkable, widespread bike ownership, and rapid speed “S-trains” making frequent trips through the city center and suburbs, a Metro system almost wasn’t even needed.  However, the first line opened in 2002, and the trains ride like public transportation’s answer to the Lexus.
Being one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, mass transit trains have special cars designated for people with bikes.
inside the Copenhagen Airport, another marvel in modern transportation architecture
One of Copenhagen’s premier attractions is the Tivoli.  First opened in 1843, it has often been sited as the inspiration for Disneyland.
The Tivoli isn’t so much a place with stuff “to do” as it’s a scenic place to meander around, especially at night.  I’ll let the photos do the talking here.
Another one of Copenhagen’s more unique tourist attractions, Christiania is a nominally independent state located within Copenhagen’s City Centre.  Founded by hippies and activists in the 70’s, Christiania is a semi-autonomous strip of 84 acres, which claims to be independent of both Denmark and the EU.
Christiania is probably most famous for its lax regulations on drugs, especially marijuana.  The main strip of Christiania (not pictured due to ubiquitous signage prohibiting photography) consists of street vendors peddling marijuana, hash, bongs, pipes, t-shirts, and other souvenirs.
While not officially recognized as independent by the Danish government, the authorities do tend to stay away from Christiania, making it the de facto red light district where sale and consumption of illegal drugs goes  un-policed.
Claiming to be more than just a red light district, Christiania does provide some of its own municipal services, such as trash pickup.
A sign upon leaving Christiania warns visitors of their re-entry into the European Union.
Out of Christiania now, here is a Danish church which I bumped into accidentally while wondering around.
Most interesting about this church was the crypt below, where wealthy Danes are interned.
Scandinavia has its own culture of sport, and one of the more exciting regional sports I encountered was kayak basketball.
As far as I could tell, the rules of the game were pretty similar to a game of basketball.  The only stipulation being that all players were in kayaks…a convenient Scandinavian twist.
Copenhagen is a lovely city to wander around in aimlessly, and go overboard with the picture taking.   Here are some more random shots from wandering around.
Copenhagen is a phenomenal city.  In terms of European cities, it almost reminded me of Amsterdam, but without all the brothels and coffeeshops, and the type of tourism those institutions tend to generate.  As the only major Scandinavian city I visited, unfortunately there wasn’t much of a comparison base, but it definitely ranks as a city I would gladly live in, assuming I could afford it.  More to come in the second post on Scandinavia.



The Architecture of the Iron Curtain

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 3:51 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past September I took another trip to Europe.  It took me 30 years on this planet to take my first step on the European Continent, and the trip last year was intentionally confined to the historically more developed countries of the Northwest.  One of the goals for this second trip was to visit several of those countries in Eastern Europe formerly hidden behind the Iron Curtain of Communism.

Uniformity and equality were tenants of Soviet Communism as it spread across Eastern Europe, and these virtues were expressed through architectural styles as they were through policy and doctrine.  This photo essay is not intended to be a comprehensive look at the countries I visited, but rather a peak into the architectural remnants of what the Communist system left behind.

The first stop on the “Iron Curtain” portion of my trip was Prague.  Capital of the now defunct Czechoslovakia, Prague has become a hot spot for tourists and expats drawn by the cheap beer and some of Eastern Europe’s more striking classical architecture (saved for an upcoming post).  This shot above is the Prague TV Tower built between 1985 and 1992.
Though Prague has been one of the fastest developing Eastern European cities since the fall of Comnunism, relics of the past abound, such as this “made in GDR” (East Germany) manhole.
another random shot from Prague
I’m not sure from where this derives but I noticed a particular infatuation with the word “non-stop” ( aka 24 hr) throughout Eastern Europe.  Non-stop restaurants, non-stop bars, non-stop massage parlors, it’s all there….and it doesn’t stop!
My primary foray into the Czech Republic’s communist past consisted of a day trip to Milovice, a small town with an abandoned Soviet airbase and surrounding village, shown in these ensuing pics.
After communism fell, many of the old block buildings which were still in use received colorful paint jobs, such as this one in Milovice.
decommissioned hangar
Not exactly sure what this is, but it’s probably the tallest free-standing tower I have ever seen.
inside one of the buildings surrounding the airfield
Here’s a shot of the actual airfield.  The day I visited it was hosting a hot-rod convention.
Now the capital of the independent state of Slovakia, Bratislava is a pleasant city with pleasing streetscapes…although you would never guess it upon arrival at the train station, rebuilt in 1988 just before the fall of Communism.
A component of the Communist dream was equality in housing forms.  This, combined with a post-WW2 housing shortage, led to the mass proliferation of “Panelaks,” mega-housing blocks, which still today house 1 in 3 residents of the former Czechoslovakia.  Bratislava’s Petrzalka district (shown above) is one of the world’s largest collections of Panelaks.
The post-war architectural wave of big-block housing units which brought Panelaks to Eastern Europe also manifested itself in massive urban housing projects for the poor in the United States such as the now defunct Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green.
It is difficult to capture the size of Petrzalka through photography or even human eyesight.  My attempt to wander around was cut short after about an hour of walking when I realized how little ground I had managed to cover.
One of the more peculiar sites I discovered in Bratislava was this abandoned soccer stadium.
Moving on now to Budapest and a slightly different flavor of Communist-era architectural layers.  The following shots are from the city centre.
Like many Eastern European cities, many of the Communist-era architectural “gems” of Budapest are found on the outskirts of town, such as this suburban street scene.
Much of the Budapest suburbs consists of a ring of grey buildings (such as this one) which surround the city, and which lore suggests would have somehow protected the city from military invasion.
As a symbolic rebuff to the Communist Era, Budapest houses a statue of the man who defined his career by striving to bringing it down.
…but of course Reagan isn’t the only throwback to the 1980’s.
Next stop on the Iron Curtain is Nowa Huta, a district just outside of Krakow, Poland, which was built as a model Stalinist village in the 1950s and 1960s.
The original town was built around this central square and quickly grew as a major steel-producing center of the Eastern Bloc.
As the town grew, modernist Panelak-style buildings sprung up around Nowa Huta as it expanded to become one of Krakow’s largest districts.
Though not quite touristy yet, Nowa Huta does tout itself as a tourist destination for travelers interested in Communist architecture.  Several routs are demarcated to guide visitors through the district.

Now moving on to a few random shots from Katowice, Poland
Katowice is the largest city in the the Silesian Metropolis, an agglomeration of 14 adjacent cities with a metropolitan population of over 5 million.
One of the more bizarre buildings I encountered was the Katowice Spodek (literally “saucer”)  opened in 1971 and currently the largest indoor venue in Poland.
The last leg on my Communist tour fittingly was Berlin, where both Communism and Capitalism prevailed on adjacent sides of the Berlin Wall until 1990.  Here are shots from several of the sections where the wall still stands.
Berlin is a fascinating city for many reasons, but one of them is the confluence of Communist and Capitalist Europe.  In the former East, many large Panelak-style housing developments still exist, such as Marzahn (above and following pics).
The housing blocks of Marzahn were constructed primarily in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and today stick out as one of Berlin’s most expansive collection of Communist-era residential buildings.
The years of Communism left an indelible mark on both the landscape and the people of Eastern Europe.  As a tourist/voyeur peeping around Eastern Europe, it’s easy to marvel at the architectural record left behind by years of despair while forgetting the hardships endured by millions of people.  This sculpture, from a public park in Prague, visualizes the toll Communism took on the people of Eastern Europe.  Beginning with a full, healthy man in the center, the ensuing figurines reflect how Communism ripped life away, until in the end nothing was left.  Today, Eastern Europe is rapidly catching up the West, but it will take generations for the ill-effects of communism to fully dissipate.



Eurotrip Destination #14: Paris

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 14th and final entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

With 18 days in Europe starting in London, passing through the UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium, it seemed fitting that Paris would be the final stop.  I arrived in Paris with 3+ days left, a fair amount of time to explore and eat my way through the French capital.

By most quantitative measures, Paris is the world’s most touristed city, so I’ll spare a lot of the details surrounding tourist attractions which everybody is probably already familiar with anyway.  What I was equally interested in were Paris’ neighborhoods, ethnic enclaves, transportation systems, and of course the food.
But nonetheless, let’s start with the basics.  I spent my first day visiting the requisite tourist attractions, of which Paris has many.
When I was about 10, I saw the Sears Tower for the first time on a family trip to Chicago.  For some reason, I had always envisioned the Eiffel Tower to be of comparative stature.  In fact, it’s quite small (by standards of 21st Century architectural tallness), but no doubt an architectural masterpiece.
Ascending to the top would have necessitated several hours of standing in line, so I opted to appreciate it from below.
Next on the list was the Arc de Triomphe.  If I hadn’t known better, I probably could have been convinced that the Arc was located along the Third Ring Road of Beijing, as it was completely surrounded by Chinese tourists taking snapshots.
Also on the list was the Louvre, the world’s premiere art museum.  More than a museum, the place feels like a compound.  It’s absolutely gigantic, and one could literally spend a full week looking at all the exhibits.
As I discovered, this is not a museum where you can get much out of a casual walkthrough.  To truly appreciate the Louvre, you need to do some homework, figure out what you want to see, where it’s located, and how to get there, because otherwise the magnitude of the collection is simply overwhelming.
The Centre Pompidou is one of Paris’ more aesthetically pleasing modern landmarks, and the public square in front is prime for people watching.
After 2 weeks of exploring cities, I was already a little cathedraled out.  But fortunately the best came at the end.
Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral is a stunning specimin of Gothic architecture, and completely open to the public taboot.
I’ll let the images do the talking.
Paris is centered around two islands in the Seine River, Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis.  This was where the medieval city first emerged and today is the oldest remaining part of Paris.
Paris is often billed as “the world’s most beautiful city” but in this regard, the area along the Seine was underwhelming.  To me, it looked like a bunch of cement, lacking much architectural ingenuity.
The islands, and the areas surrounding them do make for good wandering and exploring territory however.
Vendors along the Seine sell locks, which couples purchase and then attach to the bridges to affirm their love…I guess.
I spent a couple hours trekking through the area until everything (especially my pictures) started to look the same.
There were several streets on the islands which were somewhat reminiscent of a medieval city (minus all the souvenir shops).
Negativity aside, the area surrounding the islands is worth checking out, but Paris is a city of neighborhoods (or arrondissements if you will), and it would be a big mistake not to get outside of the central area and explore some of the less touristed spots.
…and Paris’ phenomenal metro system makes this easy to do.
In all my travels, Paris might be the most subway accessible city I’ve ever visited.
The Paris Metro doesn’t have the world’s longest network, the most stops, or the highest ridership.  And it definitely doesn’t have the best infrastructure.  But what makes it so useful is the sheer density of trackage and stations.
There is hardly any destination in Paris which is more than a 5 minute walk from a Metro stop, and there was rarely a time I waited more than 1 or 2 minutes for a train to arrive.  I was literally bouncing from one end of the city to the opposite end several times per day, and rarely spent more than 25 minutes in transit.
The trains themselves are old and rickety, especially by European standards, and most run on rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels.  Paris city planners have seemed to prioritize comprehensiveness over modernity, and the result is a system with both character and utility.
…and the occasional abandoned subway station
Paris is also served by an extensive commuter rail system as well as long-distance rail links all over Europe.  Trains link up to one of 6 terminals such as Gare Du Nord (above).
Inside the station, the long-distance and commuter lines link directly with the Metro providing seamless inter-modal transportation.
Well, now that we’ve covered tourist attractions and transportation, let’s get to the neighborhoods!
Through dumb luck, the neighborhood where my hostel was located, Montmartre, fit my expectations of Paris closer than any of the areas I had listed on my itinerary.  Alive with cafes, street life, a touch of bohemia, and narrow winding streets as opposed to the broad boulevards crossing much of the city, spending evenings in Montmartre was my favorite way to experience “Paris.”
Thanks in large part to Baron Haussmann, Paris is one of Europe’s more architecturally monotonous cities.  Montmartre provided some departure from the typical form.
Most buildings rose 4 or 5 stories, with commercial activity such as cafes, bakeries, vegetable shops, and the occasional Turkish schwarma shop on the first level.
Here are some residences in the typical Haussmann-style apartment blocks
The Montmartre neighborhood lies upon the slope of a precipitous hill, which provides for fantastic vistas looking North.
Few neighborhoods in Paris can be found which are not inundated with cafes.  Cafe culture is simply the way Parisians role, for lack of a better way of putting it.  While many cafes are also full service restaurants, Parisians often sit for hours, at all hours of the day, chatting with friends or reading the newspaper with no more than a cup of coffee or a coke.
more random city shots…
Paris is a hotbed for international migration, but it’s easy to miss this fascinating aspect of the city if one sticks to the tourist trail.  I spent a good day and a half exploring some of these ethnic communities which generally surround the central core of the city.  While immigrants generally live separate from the native population, at casual glance there appears to be more mixing among the various immigrant groups than tends to happen in North America, and one example of this is Belleville (above).
Belleville is home to many ethnic groups including one of Paris’  two largest Chinese communities.  Paris does not have an area specifically labeled “Chinatown” but rather has several small Chinese enclaves scattered around the city.  Most of these enclaves are heterogeneous with immigrants from around the world living in close proximity.  Case in point:  Just across the street from this shot was a tasty Lebanese sandwich shop, where my Argentinean cum Parisian friend Pablo took me for lunch.
Probably the most interesting ethnic neighborhood I explored was Goutte d’Or in the 18th Arrondissement, commonly known as Paris’ “Little Africa.”
Generally speaking, Goutte d’Or seems to be a neighborhood which native Parisians avoid and are afraid of.  I was told by multiple people not to go there.
Most of the storefronts cater to Paris’s African immigrant population.
Taking a jaunt through the central market of Goutte d’Or is an easy way to forget you are in Europe.  Most of what I saw in this market felt straight out of West Africa.
Goods hawking, shamans for hire, the sale and slaughtering of live animals, pretty much anything flies in Goutte d’Or.
Here are a few more shots of Goutte d’Or and the 18th Arrondisment.  To see the “other” side of Paris, I strongly recommend a trip to this fascinating area.
Another hotbed for immigrant activity is the St-Denis district which is home primarily to Moroccans and Turks.
The broad avenues and free air restaurants make St-Denis an excellent place to enjoy a schwarma or kabob.  Like Goutte d’Or, this was also an area which local Parisians appeared to be afraid of.  Just south of St-Denis, I inadvertently discovered another Chinese community, as well as a vice district where prostitutes stand in front of buildings showing off their goods to perspective Johns.
While prostitution isn’t legal as it is in the Netherlands, it is quite out-in-the-open in Paris, albeit confined to specific vice districts.  Quartier Pigalle is Paris’ most famous of these vice districts with the main streets lined with sex shops and massage parlors.  Along the side streets, prostitutes can be seen displaying themselves to passersby.
The concept of a “suburb” is very different in Europe than it is in North America, and Paris is a prime case.  In North America, we tend to associate suburbs with affluence, native populations, and low residential densities.  In Paris (and much of Europe) on the other hand, suburbs are often the home of the poor, the down and out, and recently arrived immigrants.  This is implied in the connotation of “banlieue” which is the French approximation of “suburb.” They also are tend to have residential densities similar to the city centre, as opposed to the urban sprawl which dominates the North American suburban landscape.  Parisian suburbs look very different from the Haussmann-esque architecture and streetscape of the city centre.  For example, high-rise residential buildings such as these are generally only built in suburban districts.
This is partly due to laws which restrict the types of buildings which are allowed in the city centre.  Notice the striking architectural difference between these shots from those above.
My friend Yahan Chuang is currently conducting doctoral research on the banlieue district of Aubervilliers, just outside of Paris proper.  Originally a site of textile production and wholesaling run by Ashkenazik Jews, the area has rapidly turned over and is now home to mostly Chinese garment wholesalers from Wenzhou.
The area is starting to emerge as a sort of suburban Chinatown.  Notice the street name.  Just across the street, I found a street vendor selling 王老吉 (a popular Chinese tea drink).
These are the wholesale shops where garments are sold (only in bulk) at rock bottom prices.  Unlike in North America where most Chinese business owners are either from the areas surrounding either Guangzhou or Fuzhou, the entrepreneurs in Aubervilliers are almost exclusively of Wenzhou extraction.
more garment shops
A typical street scene from outside Aubervilliers…not the image people usually conjure when they think of Paris.
got bling?
Here are a few more random banlieue (suburban) shots.
Well, if you’ve made it this far, I appreciate your attention, and I’ve saved the best part for last, because Paris is a foodie’s paradise.  I think Samuel L. Jackson sums it up pretty well in Pulp Fiction when he says “They got the same shit over there that we got over here.  It’s just the little differences.”  There isn’t much food in Paris which would be unfamiliar to the typical American.  The difference is in the overall quality of ingredients and preparation.

Take this tart for example.  I could buy something which looks just like this at most bakeries in Chicago.  But in Paris (and I’m generalizing of course) it’s going to be made with finer ingredients, no preservatives, less sugar, and fresher raspberries.

Each morning I enjoyed delicious tarts, breads, and pastries for breakfast.  On several occasions, I made the mistake of buying baked goods at night and found they tasted quite different than they would have just 10 hours earlier.  Baked goods in Paris are made to be consumed within a few hours after leaving the oven.  This focus on freshness sacrifices longevity, and the result is obvious the minute it hits your mouth.

And one item which shouldn’t be missed is the crepe.  My friend Pablo emphasized to me that there are 2 kinds of crepes in Paris:  the ones bought from street vendors and the ones eaten in sit-down restaurants, of which he recommended the latter (pictured above).  Crepes come with a wide variety of possible innards, and restaurants specializing in crepes offer many permutations of meats, cheeses, and vegetables to go inside.
There is no shortage of good finger food in Paris, and I could have easily spent 3 days there without picking up a fork.
shopping cart corn cobs, a popular snack in ethnic neighborhoods
Without looking at the next picture, see if you can guess where this shot was taken?  When you give up, scroll down.
Yup, it was taken at a McCafe, the requisite pastry shop located in most Parisian McDonald’s.  Parisians indeed love their baked goods, even when patronizing the Golden Arches.
Again calling on the wisdom of Samuel L. Jackson, I had long known that “In Paris you can buy a beer at McDonald’s.”  Consider me a sucker for all things Pulp Fiction related, but I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, they do sell beer at McDonald’s in Paris.  But the part they don’t tell you in Pulp Fiction is that they won’t sell you a beer unless you buy something else.  Hence the P’tit Wrap to go along with my can of 1664, which was incidentally one of the worst beers I’ve ever tasted.
This just looks like a bad idea.
Here’s another peculiar French take on fast food.  These advertisements were literally everywhere during my stay in Paris.  I didn’t actually try a “Strong Bacon” though, nor was I able to decipher what the red specks on top of the bun were.
Yeah, yeah, I know.  It’s a Vietnamese sign, in a French-speaking country, but I still got a good chuckle out of this one.
I don’t know why, but I really like these big green crosses on every pharmacy.
To be frank, I found Paris to be overrated in regards to the typical reasons it draws visitors.  London has better architecture.  Amsterdam’s streets are more romantic.  And the central area along the Seine is so over-touristed (not to mention architecturally underwhelming) that I didn’t truly feel like I was in Paris until I started exploring the more peripheral arrondisments.  Paris does have a unique charm to it, and this is best experienced in the cafe and street life of districts like Montmartre.  I also found the ethnic and culinary diversity to be far more engaging than anything I saw in a museum or along the Champs-Elysees.  In these regards, Paris was one of the highlights of my trip.  One regret is that I was not able to see anything else in France outside of Paris.  Another is that I would have liked to have more time to enjoy French fine dining.  These was not a conscious choice, but rather the result of time constraints.

Well, that concludes the Europe 2011 series.  I’m hoping to resume the Europe adventure in the summer of 2012.  Thanks for reading.



Eurotrip Destination #13: Leuven

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 8:54 am by Benjamin Ross

This is the 13th entry from my 2011 Europe Trip.

Like Bruges and Ghent, Leuven is another easy daytrip from Brussels.  Only 20 minutes away, via trains which run multiple times per hour, Leuven is close enough that its many of its residents commute daily to Brussels and vice versa.

Leuven is home to Belgium’s largest student population, and in addition to being essentially a commuter suburb of Brussels, has many of its own sites as well.
The University of Leuven, founded in 1425, is Belgium’s oldest university.  Here’s their main library.
Leuvenites play “Petanque,” a popular street game of French origin.
continuing on through the city centre
Leuven’s city centre is dense and compact and this entire series was shot within roughly a fifteen minute walking radius.
Leuven’ Oude Markt is one of the primary venues for entertainment.
This is the ideal spot to relax outside with a delicious Belgian beer.
Here’s the tasty beer my Belgian-American friend Daphne introduced me to.  It’s called Nondedju (triple), tastes like heaven, and is somewhere in the double digits on alcohol content.   I drank one bottle and was moderately intoxicated.
Above Oude Markt are also some of the finer examples of Belgian architecture I encountered.
One of Belgium’s most famous contributions to the world of culinary arts is stoofvlees, a beef stew slow-cooked with bread, mustard, and brown abbey beer…Highly recommended!
…and a shot of Oude Markt at night.
Leuven is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Brussels, so there is little reason not to include it in a trip to the Eurozone’s capital city.  Leuven provides many of the same Belgian cultural amenities as Brussels, but in a smaller, more-student oriented package.  It’s well worth a day trip, or possibly longer, for a break from the hustle and bustle of Brussels.  Had I more time, I would have stayed a week solely for the beer and stoofvlees.  Next (and final) destination:  Paris

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