Summer Vacation Part 1: Napoli

Heather and I are just back from our first real European holiday. That’s not to say we haven’t been vacationing. We’ve done our fair share of that. But this year was the first that I was entitled to my full, state-provided five weeks of paid holiday. Seeing as I had to be in Rome over the Fourth of July weekend for a conference, Heather and I decided to make an extended vacation out of it, starting with two days in Napoli before the conference. After Rome we went on to Florence and further to Switzerland, but we’ll leave that for another post.

We flew from Aarhus to Copenhagen on July 1st and from there directly to Napoli. The flight was uneventful but SAS service is clearly going down hill. There’s now only free coffee but no free water. Ugh. Luckily, it’s a pretty short flight despite being on the other end of Europe. Lying under the shadow of Vesuvius, the whole Napoli metro area is enormous and sprawling but the airport is tiny. So tiny, in fact, that it doesn’t have any gates. Just deplane on the tarmac and bus to a door.

Our initial experiences with Napoli were chaotic. We got in line for a taxi at the airport only to watch taxi drivers repeatedly yell at one another and then refuse service to some passengers for no obvious reason. For 20 Euro we managed a relatively uneventful taxi ride to our hotel near the central train station. The contrast with Denmark, however, was striking. Napoli is hot, crowded, and loud. And motorcycles are everywhere, going every direction, all the time. Honking of horns seems to be a signal for everything from “Hello!” to “F* off.”

We stayed at UNA Hotel Napoli based on some internet recommendations and price comparison. It turned out to be a great decision because for 12 Euro we were upgraded from a standard room to an Executive Suite, which I can only describe as the nicest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. It had three balconies, a full bathroom, various electronic controls, and a free mini bar. You can see it in the pictures below; you can see where the room is on the fourth floor of the building, in the roundish section on the far left of the picture. They also had a rooftop patio where breakfast was served. All for about 100 Euro/night. Again, from Denmark, these prices are unimaginable.

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Our main reasons for being in Napoli were (1) pizza, (2) Herculaneum/Ercolano, and (3) something Heather remembered from The Borgias. We took care of pizza right away by eating the best pizza I’ve ever eaten at Pizzeria Fortuna. Some pizza the next day from Pizzeria Donna Sophia was still good but not as excellent. Fortuna is about as much of a hole-in-the-wall as a restaurant can be, so maybe I was biased by it’s charm. Five Euros is also similarly unimaginable from a Danish perspective where that amount of money might buy a can of CocaCola but certainly not a pizza.

As I said, our primary cultural objective was to visit the excavations of Herculaneum, a Roman town destroyed (along with Pompeii, etc.) in the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Most tourists apparently visit Pompeii because it is more famous and larger. But guidebooks pointed us to Herculaneum as a better-preserved site despite being smaller. Given temperatures in the high-80s F, we figured a smaller site was more manageable. It turned out to be a good decision. The site is located about 30 minutes from Napoli, which we accessed on the Circumvesuviana commuter rail line (which, IMHO, is one of the best names trains of all time…of all time). The modern town, Ercolano, seems economically impoverished (like much of the Napoli region) with the strange addition of a short tourist strip between the train station and the site. Some relatively recent changes, however, meant that the entrance to the site was well-marked up to a point after which the directions were essentially “go left and it’s over there somewhere.” Luckily, when we reached the point of maximal confusion in a somewhat narrow intersection of alleys, a friendly local pointed us (unprompted) in the right direction.




As you can see in the picture, the site is quite large and its setting shows the scale of the devastation from the eruption. Modern Ercolano can be seen as the buildings at eye level in the rear of the image. The entire Roman town was buried in ash underneath that level. The entrance to the site is at the lower-left (you can see a line of people there), about 30-40 feet below modern ground level.

The site was fascinating and well-worth a few hours of exploration. It’s moderately well described through a combination of map, guidebook, and some sign postings. Many of the buildings are strikingly well-preserved. A set of bathhouses, in particular, shed light on the nature of life in the wealthy town. Many of the houses are two story structures with central fountains, balconies, and ornate tilework or frescoes. Some pictures are included below.


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After visiting Herculaneum, we headed back to Napoli (again on the Circumvesuviana). The return trip lacked the gang of apparent drug dealers evading police, break beer bottles, and smoking weed, but was still pleasant. But then there was the heat.

We had another half day in Napoli, which we used to do a bit of additional sightseeing. Again, it was really hot, so we didn’t venture around much. But we figured we needed to attempt to take Neapolitan transit, which was probably a mistake – the system is chaotic (like many things in Napoli) – and not helped by the lack of schedules, the fact that buses, trams, and metro are all controlled by different companies. But, after a short tram ride, we did manage to take a look at the harbor and a couple of castles. The area around Castel Nuovo was much more touristy than the more trash-filled area around the train station; there was a lot of shopping there, and shopping that seemed nicer than the guys selling mobile phone cases on cardboard tables outside our hotel. Indeed, a neoclassical mall, Galleria Umberto I, is just across the street from the Castel. Oddly, all the stores were out of business.

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With that, our trip to Napoli was over. We got a taxi ride back to the train station, where the drive let us out in the middle of a road with traffic going by because he said it was the best place to get out.

Onward to Rome!

PS. Napoli is also famous for the Rum Baba. We are not fans, despite the pre-consumption optimism shown in my face below.

Rum Baba

Rum Baba


And so we go (or leave) home

About a year ago, Heather and I were wrapping up our final weeks in the United States, packing up our apartment (or apartments, depending on the exact timeframe), saying “bon voyage” to friends and family, and emotionally preparing ourselves for the move abroad.

Since then we’ve done a lot. We’ve made new friends, started new jobs, adjusted to all the differences (and similarities) of Danish culture, society, workplaces, government, healthcare, grocery stores, and so on. We’ve really established ourselves here in Aarhus and enjoyed all the benefits of living the expat life: travel to fun locales, shockingly good tax rates, and the sensation of never quite knowing where home is or will be next.

Yesterday we started packing up our apartment. We’re in the process of moving on to a new apartment. Our next place is just down the street from where we live now, but we’ll be taking a few months between apartments in a quaint house a little closer to the city center. It’s sort of our winter “stay-cation” for the really dark months ahead. But we’re also packing up to travel back to Minnesota for about ten days. So a third of our stuff is packed up for the trip, a third is packed up for our January move, and the remainder is scattered around in piles that we’ll have to consolidate, box, and move in the first few days when we return in January.

Our twenties have apparently been defined by moves, from dorms to apartments to other apartments to houses to condos to apartments, back and forth, yadda yadda, lots of boxes and trucks and miles on the road. Now we’re moving again and travelling internationally in the middle of the move. Realistically this is up there on the list of dumbest planning decisions ever.

But the thing that’s really striking me with this move is that it’s opening up all kinds of questions about place, about the idea of home, and about the role of physical geography in a digital age. Heather and I have always thought of Minnesota as our home and I think we continue to do so (I won’t speak for her). But increasingly Denmark feels like home. It’s where we’re rooted, where we spend most of our time, and where we come home to (even though that’s in the process of changing). When we travel, Aarhus is where we come home to feel comfortable after my work trips or the hectic activity of travel.

One of the critical aspects of surviving expat life is recognizing that non-expats can’t really understand what your life is like if they’ve never lived abroad, and even then every experience is unique. Flying back to Minnesota feels like we’re leaving home, even though we’re headed to the place we’ve always known as home. Wrestling with those feelings is something I know will be hard to explain and probably even harder to understand.

In the two months since our last post

When we last posted, we’d just had a really fun trip to Zealand on what might have been the last nice weekend of the summer. It’s two months later, and winter is definitely rolling into Jutland. It’s been hovering around zero here (that’s in Celsius) for the past two weeks, but it has been tolerable due to the lack of wind. No snow yet, but we’ve had a lot of morning frost.

What have we been up to since our last post? Well, quite a bit. I’ve been swamped at work between teaching my masters seminar, prepping two courses for the Spring, and work on several ongoing projects. On November 14th, I taught an all day workshop for faculty about the statistical package R, which kept me thoroughly busy in preparation for the first half of November. Heather, too, has been quite busy with her new job at Aarhus Købmandsskole, where she’s been working as a teaching assistant in the English department. On top of that, we’ve been continuing our Danish classes two nights a week and Heather’s been taking a Bollywood dance class. So, in short, we’ve been incredibly busy. But, we’ve also had some time for fun.

In October, we took a week-long trip to Berlin. Week 42 (as Danes somehow manage to count the year in weeks, a skill I still haven’t picked up) is Kartofflerferien, or potato holiday, when all schools are closed. The holiday’s origins are that it was around that time year that potatoes ripened, so schoolchildren all had to go home to help their parents’ with the harvest. It’s the Danish equivalent of Spring (Energy) break – a completely arcane event that survives because of its promise of vacation rather than its original purpose. This was the first time that Heather or I had been to Germany and it was worth the trip. We took the DSB Intercity train direct from Aarhus, which takes about 7 hours, but dropped us off just outside of the city center. We stayed at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, which ended up being a fairly convenient place to see lots of the major tourist attractions.

While we were there, we met up with an old friend of mine, Dani, from Stanford who recently moved to Berlin with her husband and son. They showed us around Markthalle Neun for a really fun street food event. Aside from that, we spent a lot of time walking around, seeing the city, and eating some pretty great food.

We spent the first day in Berlin visiting Museum Island, a World Heritage site that houses several museums of mostly antiquities, as well as the Berlin Cathedral. We ate dinner at a little French bistro, which was probably geographically improper but proved worth the trip. The next day, we stopped by some obligatory tourist sites, including the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building. Unfortunately, the Reichstag Building was closed for maintenance so we didn’t get a chance to go inside, but it was impressive from the outside.

The highlight of that day, however, was our lunch at Restaurant Fischers Fritz, which was our first ever meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and a two-star restaurant event). In short, the food was fantastic. Certainly the best lunch I’ve ever eaten and the service was impeccable. The choice to go for lunch was apt, as the restaurant was only hosting a few tables of mostly business meetings and the lunch menu kept things affordable.

On our last day, we had plans to see a few more museums, but one of them was closed and the other had really rude employees, so we instead decided to spend the day at the Berlin Zoo, the oldest zoo in Europe. It’s a really beautiful place, with a very park-like atmosphere and a large variety of animals. The highlight was probably the new aviary, which showcased birds from every continent, including in some interactive exhibits. That night, we ate a traditional dinner at Zur Letzen Instanz, the oldest restaurant in Berlin, for a meal of fix and roasted pork.

Here’s a gallery of some highlights from the trip:

The week after our Berlin trip, I spent two days in Vejle at the Hotel Vejlefjord for the Danish Political Science Association annual meeting, which was a really small but fun conference with political scientists from the five Danish universities (yes, there are only five). It was a great time to socialize and, in typical Danish fashion, included a three-course dinner with 7 courses of alcohol.

Denmark doesn’t celebrate Halloween, so the end of October passed somewhat insignificantly. November 1st, however, is known as J-day, when all the Danish breweries release their “Julebryg,” or Christmas Beer. We avoided this, thankfully, and thus didn’t get caught up in a day of drinking that starts at about 2pm and continues for twelve hours.

So, in short, that’s been the major news from here. Work has kept Heather and I pretty busy, but we’ve also been trying to make the most of the Danish autumn. We don’t have any major trips planned except for our triumph return to the United States on December 20th. We’ll be back for two weeks, then we’ll return to Aarhus so we can move from our current apartment into a place we’ll be staying for three months in the winter. We’ll tell you more about that later.

Why haven’t I been posting much?

So this is just a quick update. I realized I haven’t posted much on the blog recently. Luckily, Heather is planning some really nice posts about Aarhus Festuge, where we attended some cool events and she volunteered, and about the challenges of being an expat in Denmark. So, look forward to those soon.

But, the reason I haven’t been posting much is because it’s been a really hectic time of year. Labor Day weekend is the traditional date for the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, in addition to being the start of the academic year, so the last several weeks have meant a combination of trans-Atlantic travel, course prep, conference prep, and recovery from all of that.

APSA was in Chicago this year, which was disappointing because it was in a familiar hotel in a familiar city, but the upshot was that I got to see a lot of Northwestern friends and plenty of other friends and colleagues who I only see once or twice a year. Prepping for a conference and following up with everyone about research ideas, papers, and so forth meant I lost a couple of weeks at the end of August and beginning of September. Luckily, its the last international conference I need to travel to until April, when I’ll be back in Chicago for the Midwest Political Science Association meeting. (Just to reassure you that I don’t just visit Chicago all the time, my two other conference for next year are in Rome and Washington, DC.)

Since APSA, I’m starting to get back into the swing of things at work, which is important because I started teaching my first independent course last week. The class, entitled “Does Public Opinion Matter?” is a master seminar for students here at Aarhus that tries to combine political philosophy, the psychology of opinion formation, and empirical studies of opinion-policy congruence. I have 20 students who will hopefully learn something, which is my goal for the class. Simultaneously, I’m taking a teacher training course provided by the university that required me to visit the small town of Ebeltoft, east of Aarhus for three days prior to APSA and that involves a bunch of ongoing work throughout this semester. Ebeltoft was a beautiful town that I’d like to visit again in order to see more than the inside of a hotel conference room. Arguably the whole teacher training program will make me a better teacher. We’ll have to see about that. At this point, it has just made me tired.

So, this post is basically just an excuse for not keeping the blog updated, but as I said, Heather will have some actually interesting news to post about soon.

The Danes have no word for please

Tonight, Heather and I skipped our first post-holiday Danish course (oops!), to attend a lecture organized at the university hosted by our friends at International Community. The speaker was a Danish anthropologist, Dennis Nørmark, who spoke to an audience of about 200 people on the scintillating topic of “How to Get Closer to the Weird Danes.”

The lecture covered some unusual Danish customs that Heather and I are already pretty familiar with, like:

  • Never sit next to anyone on a bus, ever. Then, if you do have to sit next to someone, absolutely say nothing and don’t look at them, even if you have to get past them to get off at the next stop.
  • If someone bumps into you, observe that they will pretend like it didn’t happen and hope you didn’t notice.
  • Don’t hold doors for people.
  • Don’t speak to cashiers at stores.
  • Don’t smile at people. They’ll think your drunk, crazy, or American…or all of the above.
  • etc. etc.

All of that can make Danes sound pretty unfriendly, which really isn’t our experience. Denmark is just a very different place from the United States. People are not very friendly to strangers and, unlike in Minnesota, random people on the street don’t say hi to you. Indeed, the other day during a walk a man gave us a smile and a “Hej”. I’ve been here long enough that it made me think he must be crazy, so Nørmark’s anecdote above resonated.

The talk also touched on some larger points about Danish history and customs. Notably, he argued that Danes don’t realize they have lots of customs, which can make situations sometimes very awkward. For example, telling someone “Good morning” after about 9:30 can be construed as an insult (i.e., “your morning is starting kind of late, isn’t it?”) because the time of day is actually midday. Nørmark also noted that Danes’ desire to avoid conflict can create problems interculturally because they simultaneously want to come to agreement on points of debate while also avoiding situations that might be unresolvable. Religion, for example, is generally off the table.

Nørmark’s major argument was that these Danish customs, which can be so striking to foreigners like us, are part of a larger (and somewhat uniquely Danish) culture that emphasizes trust and individuality. Individuals trust each other to do what is right, to work for their own benefit and solve their own problems, and to generally follow the broad set of cultural norms (and smaller behaviors noted above). Interacting with strangers and lending a helping hand aren’t common because it would be insulting to that person’s individuality. For example, I as an American would typically be inclined to help someone who was struggling with their luggage on a train or looking lost on the street. Here, however, giving that help without first being asked could be insulting. Despite initial hesitations about offering help, Nørmark made clear that the high levels of trust also mean that Danes are ready to help out once asked. This strange mix of individuality and trust is what defines Danish culture. As another example, Nørmark said it would be quite uncommon here to offer someone free food (e.g., some apples from your trees or vegetables from your garden) but it is quite common for people to leave such items out for others to take for free.

Overall it was an interesting lecture and came with free coffee and cookies, like any good Danish event. We also signed up for a copy of Nørmark’s book, which will be delivered to us by mail with the unwritten expectation that we eventually pay for it. Ah social trust!

The most interesting part of the talk perhaps came at the very beginning when Nørmark pointed out that Danes love being casual and informal but have perhaps taken this to an extreme. They’ve removed all the formalities that typically appear in English. Because Danes have no word for please and rarely ask one another for help with things, the Danish language has evolved to have people frequently speaking in statements rather than requests. For example, sitting at the lunch table where an American might ask “could you pass me a napkin?”, the Dane will simply reach across the table and say “I’m taking a napkin.” This is absolutely true in my experience and comes in all contexts, like when shopping individuals will reach around you to take an item off the shelf in front of your rather than inconvenience you by asking you to move or hand it to them. To imagine how this works, consider the feeling you have every time you drive on the freeway and someone turns on their turn signal after merging in front of you. That is Denmark.

A tale of two cities (part deux)

With a requisite layover in Amsterdam to get to Paris, we figured a logical conclusion to our trip to Paris would be a couple of days in Europe’s city of sin. We decided it would be more fun to try taking the train from Paris to Amsterdam rather than go through a few hours of airport hassle for a 40 minute flight. This was a great choice.

Thalys style

Thalys style

We took the Thalys high-speed train from Paris Gare du Nord directly to Amsterdam Centraal, with just a couple of stops in Brussels, Antwerp, and Rotterdam. We’ll have to go back again to see those intermediate places because we were set on getting to our destination. The train was great. We paid something like 10 euro extra to get first class accommodations, which meant lunch (not so great), alcohol (better), and free wifi. The train travels at a top speed of 186mph, so we got to Amsterdam in about 3 hours.

Heather getting excited

Heather getting excited

We also picked a hotel right in the heart of the city because we had to catch an early flight back to Billund, which meant two days in the middle of Amsterdam’s notorious red light district. Interestingly, it’s not really a district so much as a canal with some alleys and isn’t really red-lit except super late at night. Mostly, it just smelled like weed. Everywhere. Also, the ceiling of our hotel room (we were “upgraded”) looked like this:

Dutch torture device?

Dutch torture device?

But, we didn’t let the drugs and prostitutes get us down. Amsterdam is a charming little city, if too full of young Brits on stag weekend. The canals, while green-colored, do create a very pleasant atmosphere with few cars and lots of bikes (so it was just like being in Denmark).

We mostly spent the time just walking around, trying out different vendors of fries, having a bit of beer at In de Wildeman, which was a cozy little beer bar just off the main drag. We also walked by (but skipped, on the advice of some friends) the Rijksmuseum, which has just reopened after a decade of renovation. It looked nice.



We decided to instead go to the Van Gogh Museum, which was well-worth the trip. The museum provides an extensive collection of works by Van Gogh and the works that inspired him as an artist. It also provides a critical biography of his life, chronicling his early failures in various careers, his struggles as an artist, and ultimately the depression that led to his suicide. It was definitely the highlight for me of the trip.

Heather’s favorite part of the trip, though, was the Scheepvaartmuseum. Yes, that’s what it’s called. It’s the maritime museum of Holland and documents the maritime history (i.e., war with Britain and various colonial activities). Some highlights are really extensive collections of model ships, historical globes, and Dutch maritime painting. The museum also included a vessel that you could tour, which Heather enjoyed (as you can see).

DSCN2173I more enjoyed the lunch we had at the museum’s cafe, which included a nice Belgian dubbel from Brouwerij ‘t IJ. It was a short trip to Amsterdam, but the weather was great and we had a nice time just walking around the city and (again) avoiding tourists.

We’re now planning our next set of adventures, some of which will be domestic but still exciting. I’m also planning to blog a bit more about our day-to-day lives, so look for that soon.

Paris, the Louvre, and Climbing Mount Everest

Heather and I continue our trip to Paris. We will post more of the details later, but first, some commentary.

A line for the Notre Dame beings...

A line for the Notre Dame beings…

...and continues ad infinitum.

…and continues ad infinitum.

Having been in the French capital city for three days, we’ve had a chance to experience what happens to a city when, after enough belle epoque songs are recorded, roaring twenties expat-authored novels written, and mid-twentieth century romantic films produced, everything that might have been redeeming about central Paris is replaced by something that looks quite like the authentic worlds portrayed in those cultural recordings but is somewhat askew, having been repackaged for the consumption of the touring masses. Paris is beautiful, its architecture endlessly pleasant, and its cafe culture seemingly unrivaled. And yet, everywhere in the tourist-visited regions, Paris is also terrible. I feel as much like I am touring the tourists as I am anything genuinely Parisian that those tourists and I both came to see.

Indeed, this morning’s trip to the Louvre left me not in awe of the incredible beauty of thousands of masterpieces nor struck by the almost unparalleled collection of French and Italian paintings and classical sculpture housed in this palace. Nor was I made at any point to remember that I was walking halls paid for by imperialism and the labor of many for the benefit of few. Instead, I watched tourists flock for a view of a select few masterpieces, seen only through the two-inch lens of a camcorder or worse, through the absurd pseudo-camera known as an iPad.

The huge number of people trying to see the Louvre in any given day seems to undermine the experience of seeing the Louvre by others (it’s hard to contemplate Mona Lisa’s smile when you’re surrounded by tourists taking pictures and signs warning you of pickpockets capitalizing on tourists taking pictures). It also lessens the value of the Louvre’s collection. The Louvre, as a result of immense, antiquated wealth and the pillaging of various other countries, houses a collection any individual piece of which would be the showcase item of almost any other museum in the world. And yet, the focus on “hitting the highlights” let’s those scrambling for one of the cramped spaces at the front row of the Mona Lisa to miss the wall of Raphaels just outside hanging for an empty hallway.

No one cares about Raphael

No one cares about Raphael

And so it comes to my conclusion and the explanation of this post’s title. Mount Everest is seen by many as the ultimate climb, a chance to summit to the top of the world. This dream is held so widely that now hundreds of people summit each year, a number scores of times larger than the number of climbers who summited in the first few decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first made it to the top. With so much interest, the mountain is over-crowded. People die as a result. And anyone with enough money can pay a guide team to get them to the top for the sake of making the summit with little regard for the value of making the journey itself. Hillary and legendary climber Reinhold Messner now both agree that fewer people should climb Everest, and advise interested parties to find one of the 14 other “eight-thousanders” that provide a nearly identical view as Everest, but with some actual variation in requisite climbing skill.

This, I feel, is an analogy for Paris. I don’t think there should be caps on visits to the Louvre or limitations how many people can ascend the Eiffel Tower. But, perhaps, it is time to find some other places worth visiting in Europe. The value of seeing the beauty and the romance of Paris is lost if everyone tries to experience it at once. Perhaps the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and some other pieces could find new homes to draw the crowds away from the Louvre and to give people a chance at the rest of the museum’s collection. Paris is full of museums, many of which are better and more interesting than the Louvre. Heather and I were stunned by the beauty of the Musee de l’Orangerie, just two blocks from the Louvre, which had hardly a line and a strict no photography policy. The Musee d’Orsay, which we saw yesterday and is housed in a gorgeous Beaux-Artes building formerly used as a rail station, has a similar “no photography” policy that again seems to keep focus on the art rather than “summiting” the various masterworks.

In short, I am thrilled to be in Paris but I am less than thrilled by the style of tourism it seems to attract. “Hitting” Paris and its main attractions seems to distract from the immense possibilities on offer in this city and the need to see Paris for the sake of seeing Paris comes at the expense of a European experience. Having lived now for half-a-year (for the second time) in a small European city, I know that Europe has far more to offer than the swarm of tourists inevitably found in all the major cities. Europe has plenty of summits; hopefully tourists will someday learn to climb some smaller peaks rather than just go for Everest.