Sarajevo roses mark scars in the cement where grenades or land mines exploded during the conflict. Since then they have been painted red to commemorate the civilians who were killed during the siege of sarajevo.

Back in the Saddle

Ive been off the grid for the past two weeks.  Trying to make more of a routine in my daily life here in Denmark and dealing with some medical tribulations.  This past Sunday I spent the day volunteering at a Red Cross run Danish Asylum center.  I found the project after weeks of searching for a place that would accept an international english speaking volunteer on a short term basis. In my cultural immersion process here in Denmark I forgot to realize that the volunteer and charity culture is also quite different.  In Denmark volunteering is less of a lifestyle than in the US.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, they are just not indoctrinated with the same expectation of “giving back.”  Maybe its because they pay their dues to their society in other ways such as high taxes, so there are less glaring social issues.

Either way after a preliminary meeting on Saturday evening, I found myself standing in a grocery store parking lot at 845 am on a Sunday with a group of strangers.  It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but a canadian, an indian, a swede, and myself all piled into a small car.  The swede, who was driving, had clearly not operated a vehicle in a while and I am still unclear on whether his license was valid in Denmark.  Regardless I decided by best bet for surviving the turbulent ride was sleep.  Forty minutes and a quick nap later I found myself at the gates of the Sandholm refugee center.  It is a large gated complex adjacent to a military complex, as a result the refugees are subjected to listening to military practices.  

Around three hundred people stay at the center while they are waiting for their case to be processed or deported.  The facility used to house close to seven hundred, but the numbers have plummeted since Denmarks recent immigration reform.  The people who live at this facility are either waiting to hear if their asylum case has been approved or their case has been rejected, but they cannot return home because they would be persecuted in their country of origin.  On average asylum seekers are supposed to stay at these venters for three months at most.  I met a man from Iran who had been living there for seven years.

We had our IDs checked as we entered the facility, since the asylum seekers can come and go freely, but the complex is gated to monitor not who leaves, but who enters.  This is an additional precaution for any refugees who’s safety is still at risk.  

We were there to run a clothing shop for the refugees.  In this space donated, clothes toys, and household items are sorted and then groups of refugees can come in, ten at a time, and take whatever they need.  The majority of donations come from Danish citizens.

I spent the first two hours with a group of volunteers sorting through dozens of black garbage bags that were stuffed with donations.  There was a particularly high volume since it is after the holidays.  Then at noon we opened the doors and suddenly there was a rush of people.  

It took me a few minutes, surrounded by the chaos to figure out what I needed to be doing.  There are two men who are asylum seekers who also help distribute the clothes, since they speak arabic.  The men however, had little understanding of women clothes, so I started working with one of the men and to speak with women.  They would explain what they wanted (we were separated by a counter and I was with all the clothes) and I would pull a bunch of options from the shelves.  

Very few of the women spoke English and I did not speak their native languages.  I found myself once again, speaking that beautifully hilarious language of hand signals.  I would hold up a skirt or pants, a woman would point to a skirt, then she would point to her leg to show how long she wanted it, I would pick up a number of different colors and she would point to the one she liked, then I would search through the piles for items that matched her description.  At one point I had an entire conversation with a woman about how unattractive she found most of the clothes, and we laughed about their dowdy appearances.  This was all done in over exaggerated hand gestures. It reminded me how much I enjoyed basic unfiltered human connection that is completely borderless.

After two more hours at the center I took the hour long train ride back to the city with some of the other volunteers.  We all came from dramatically different backgrounds a teacher, a graduate student, someone who works in sales, and multiple embassy employees.  We were dramatically different but were united in this one interest in volunteering.  It was fascinating to hear everyones different motivations and desires for being there.  

It took me two months to finally volunteer here in Denmark, but it was totally worth it.  It makes me feel connected to new cultures and communities in ways I don’t quite understand.  I am going to try to go back to the center at least once a week and I feel I am going to learn a great deal about Denmark from people who are trying to join this country.

Pest and the Rest

I woke up early our second day in Budapest and took some time to myself to visit the Dohány Synagogue.  It is the second largest in the world, after one in New York.  It managed to survive the war and then in the 1950s locals worked hard to restore it to its original condition.  It was visually stunning and imposing in the way where I wasn’t sure if I was being encouraged to fear or to love God.  I went on a quick guided tour of the facilities and noticed that there was a plaque and collection bin for the Hungarian March of the Living, which is the program I went on in high school to the concentration camps.  

In the rest of the space there is a graveyard for the unnamed Hungarian Jews who’s bodies were recovered, but never their identitied.  There is also a number of memorials for righteous gentiles, and specifically Raoul Wallenberg.

There was a large metal weeping willow and each leaf has the name and details of a Hungarian Jew who died.  The center of the memorial is supposed to look like an inverted menorah.  

In a drastic change of pace we went to the largest cathedral in Budapest, which also has a beautiful view over the city.  The cathedral was just as ornate and intimidating as the synagogue but in a different way.  Also this cathedral is famous for one of their reliquaries, which I have always found an odd practice.  Reliquaries are basically the remains or body parts from major religious figures that are preserved in some sort of highly decorated object, that can then be worshipped.  This was the hand of a saint, in a miniature gold church.  You can pay two euro to have it light up, so you can better see the details of his hand.  There was a crowd of tourists paying their respects to the hand, and it all seemed a bit like a circus act

The cathedral and the synagogue sum up my aversion to organized religion.  I am fond of the tradition and community, but I am wary of the conformity, forced morality, and pomp and circumstance.  

We then climbed about three hundred steps to the roof of the church to look out over the city.  It was incredibly windy, to the point I had to lean into the wind to try not to blow away

We then took the train to the outskirts of town to go to the Széchenyi baths.  I don’t have any pictures, since a camera and baths seemed like a poor combination.  It was around $6 for all day access to the baths and a locker.  There is an indoor and outdoor complex of around thirty thermal baths.  It was incredibly relaxing and after walking fifteen miles a day it did wonders for my joint pain.  Its definitely something I would do on a regular basis if living in Budapest.  I also decided to splurge and get an hour long massage, which was a whopping $35.  

After lounging in the baths for two hours I went to a small room where there was a hulking blonde Hungarian woman.  She did not talk the entire time, except when I asked her to work a little harder on my back, she took this suggestion very seriously and dug her whole body weight into me.  It was painful but awesome.  Sometimes I don’t realize how much pain I am in on a daily basis, until I do something to address or remedy it.  My back was a connect-the-dots of a series of knots.  Then at the end of the massage she commanded “Sit up.  I crack you now.”  This was new.  She wrapped her arms around me in a number of different ways and then cracked and stretched my different joints.  I was completely at her mercy and I think I was two inches taller by the end of it all.  

During our remaining time in Budapest we visited the Applied Arts museum, which was beautiful, but not really my cup of tea.  We went to Heroes Square at dusk.  It is one of the more impressive historical monuments I have ever seen which manages to chronological highlight historical heroes from the inception of Hungary until the late 19th century.

We also did a lot of walking, just trying to get to know the city.  Then on the final day we spent the morning at Parlament, which outshines any of our buildings in DC.  I mean c’mon this is where their sessions convene.

After parlament we made the long journey to the airport.  One final fun fact I learned in in Hungary, outside of the discussion rooms in parlament there are cigar holders in a row.  The MPs used to leave there cigars, while they went to debate new laws and they said it was a worthwhile session if when they returned there were only ashes left.

All Buda and no Pest

Okay so fun fact, Budapest is actually two places.  Theres a large river (the Danube) running through the city and on one side is Buda and the other side of the river is Pest.  Seems like this might be common knowledge, but I had no idea.  Another fun tidbit, I am the first person in my immediate family to go to Hungary.  Both my parents have traveled extensively, and my brother recently returned from backpacking through Europe, south east Asia, and living in Australia for a year.  So the travel competition is pretty stiff.  Being the first one to visit a country is pretty tricky, since it feels like my family has already gone so many places, but it also means I have tons of good travel recommendations.  This time I get to be the tourguide.

We arrived in Budapest on an overnight train from Prague and I swore I would wake up early and watch the sunrise from our car, but that didn’t happen.  We went to our airbnb (which was awesome this time) and dropped our things, and then headed out into the city. We decided to split our days on different sides of the river.  We started out in Buda, where there are many of the historic buildings.  We powered through Castle Hill, Mathias Church, and Fishermans Bastion, which are some of the major sites.

View of the Chain Bridge that connects Buda and Pest

Bird vogueing for me on top of a sculpture

Interior of Mathias Church, where I almost walked into the walls a bunch of times because I was so distracted by ceilings.

Outside of Mathias Church

Fisherman’s Bastion.

View of Parlament from Fishermen’s Bastion.  

That afternoon we also went to Hospital in the Rock which is hands down the coolest museum in Buda or Pest for that matter.  Sadly they had a no picture rule as well. The museum is miles of underground caves, which served as a hospital during WWII and revolution of 1956.  Then it was a top secret nuclear safe house for forty years, until it was turned into a museum.  The museum has now been restored to its original condition, with half made to look life a hospital with wax figures, and the other half is left as a nuclear safe house.  We were taken on a one hour guided tour and I would highly recommend it. 

By the time we left Buda, the sun was setting over the Chain Bridge.

A Little Perspective

After the Jewish museum we got some lunch and took a long walk in silence. We continued our depressing historical education at the communism museum, which is tucked off of a main street, behind a McDonalds, up a flight of stairs, and next to a casino.  It sounds naive but I never really thought about the experience of living under communism.  The museum carried me through history and gave a detailed account of life in the Czech republic.  Parts of the exhibit were comical, the communist kitchen and the school room showed the propaganda that now seems amusing.

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After the home life, things took a more serious turn when we went through the interrogation room where we learned about the secret police, public oppression, and the militant tactics of the government.  One of the final rooms had a video about the protests of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, on the anniversary of Jan Palachs death. The video showed plain clothed police relentlessly beating civilians at peaceful protests.  There was one particular moment where a women was being pushed around by a police officer, and a man intervened.  The cop hit the man, then the man punched the cop.  Suddenly the man got a look on his face, realizing that his actions would have irreversible consequences.  He started to run away, but he was enveloped by a sea of plain clothes cops who beat him until he stopped moving.  The next piece of the museum showed a recreation of the Berlin wall and some of the graffiti.

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After the communism museum, the Lennon Wall, as a symbol of freedom, struggle, and accomplishment started to make more sense.  

We decided it was time for a change of pace, so we went for a leisurely walk along the water, with the goal of watching the sun set over the Charles Bridge. We got a beautiful view of the city (and some penguins?) along the way

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We got to the Charles Bridge a few minutes before the sun started to set, and realized the sun would be setting behind a hill, not over the water and we wouldn’t be able to see anything from the bridge, so we decided to haul ass back to the Castle and see the sun go down over the whole city.  There was some asthmatic breathing, but we made it to the castle just in time.  

After the sun disappeared we walked through the castle complex again and this time I connected with the history.  It was completely empty, except for a few soldiers, and all of the buildings were carefully illuminated.  I was in awe of the place.  There are few words to explain the irrational emotional connection I felt to the space.  It was mine, it was beautiful, and I just wanted to stay.

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We navigated the rest of the complex in silence and by the time we arrived to the opposite side the sun was completely gone, and the city was alight in a way pictures couldn’t capture. 

We walked home through the rainy streets of Prague, watching the twinkling lights of the buildings, marveling at the beauty of the city, with such a complex past.  I felt content, realizing that I am my happiest when traveling.  I feel fulfilled and inspired being surrounded by the newness of each place.  Meeting people from around the world expands my understanding of myself and my own upbringing.  I absolutely love my life in the states, and the people I spend my time with, but when I am traveling I feel alive in a different way.

Jewish Museum of Prague

After another breakfast of coco puffs on Sunday, we made our way to the Jewish Museum of Prague.  I assumed this would be one large building with the few artifacts that survived the war.  Instead our tickets gave us access to five synagogues and a cemetery.  None of the synagogues are practicing and instead each one has been turned into a different monument to Jewish life. Sadly there were no pictures allowed in the museum, but there is an extensive virtual tour on the website if you want to see some of these things.

The Maisel Synagogue had a collection of religious artifacts from the 16th and 17th century.  It explained in great detail about Jewish practices and holidays.  

The Klausen synagogue also focused on the historical Jewish experience, but detailed daily Jewish life and the more mundane or normal practices.  In one part of the museum they had a traditional Shabbos table and the like.  

The Ceremonial Hall, a building adjacent to the cemetery, focuses on Jewish burial practices, as well as the history of Jews in the Czech republic.  In one room they had the recovered Jewish headstones that had been broken by the Nazis.  It was common practice during WWII, not only to desecrate Jewish burial sites, but to take the broken headstones and use them to pave the roads in the concentration camps.  This was an additional measure of dehumanization, since it is enormously disrespectful to walk over the graves of the deceased.  

The Spanish Synagogue was built in the sephardic style, so more what we imagine a mosque to look like.  The exhibit inside focused on the history of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews in the Czech Republic as well as the silver that they produced.  The exhibit also detailed the life of artists, musicians, and writers who were sent to Terezin (the red cross show camp) and forced to produce their craft for Nazi propaganda.  For example the Jewish composers were forced to write Nazi marches.  In secret these artists also created work about their experiences living in the camp, and then buried or hid their work.  Many of these people were later deported to other camps where they died.  Their music, however survived and is devastatingly beautiful.  Today it is performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the Terezin Music Foundation.  

Pinkas Synagogue is the oldest, built in 1535, and perhaps the most powerful.  The synagogue is completely empty, the seats, the bimah, everything is gone.  Instead from floor to ceiling in the four rooms of the synagogue, in hand painted black and red lettering is the name of every Czech Jew who died in the Holocaust.  Softly over the speaker system there is a woman’s voice reading the names, the dates they died, and where they died.  Its a visual experience that took me by surprise.  I stood staring at the names and once again I was overwhelmed about how the Holocaust obliterated individuality.  Here were maybe a thousand people with the same last name, who are lost to history.  They are only remembered by these little letters.  They all lead lives, had people they loved, and things that mattered to them, and thats something we will never know.  It disturbs me.  I was standing in front of the names and the friend I was traveling with, who is not Jewish, turned to me and said “I wonder who we would have been.”  She was wondering out loud if she would have been in the resistance, a bystander, or worse complicit to the Nazis work.  I murmured “I wouldn’t have had a choice, I would have been killed.”

I said it without thinking and she looked bewildered, but the more I thought about it it was true.  Id like to think of myself as a strong woman with the moral integrity to stand up to injustice in society.  Thats a imagined reality, but theres no way to predict how I would react in such an extreme situation.

I do know my mother is Jewish, my father is catholic, I have a physical disability, and I am not in great health.  Had I lived in Eastern Europe during the war, most likely, I would have been arrested, deported to a camp, where I would have died.  Then my entire life, all of my memories, experiences, accomplishments, failures, hopes, dreams, and my existence would be limited to ten little black letters on the walls of a synagogue.  

An introduction to Prague

Our arrival in Prague on Friday was relatively uneventful, compared to some of our other travel woes.  We took the tram from the airport to our hostel which is oddly named “Art Hole”, and tried to check in.  We were then told that they had overbooked so they only had one bed available, so I was set up on a mattress on the floor.  It was comically unfortunate seeing as the last time my friend and I traveled together we had the air bnb fiasco.  The staff at the hostel, however were incredibly kind and apologetic.  They gave us a hefty discount off our final bill, so it all worked out.  We debated going to to bars and experiencing local culture, but instead we inhaled a $3 pizza and went to bed.  

We woke up pretty early Saturday and had breakfast at our hostel (which is included).  Both my friend and I were maybe a little too excited that the hostel had coco puffs.  After a full nights sleep, coffee and breakfast I was able to fully appreciate our hostel.  It is probably one of the best I have ever stayed in.  Decent amenities, free breakfast, free towels, super kind staff, and all of the walls are covered in huge murals.  Its also right in the center of town, so if your ever in Prague stay here.  

We left the hostel and started to wander to go meet our friends.  First we went through old town square, which houses a famous but perplexing clock.

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Then we crossed Charles Bridge, perhaps the most famous site in Prague, which is lined with christian statues.  It is impossible to capture in a single picture, but it offered a beautiful view of the city and each statue had impressive emotional detail carved into the faces.  

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We then had a twenty minute uphill walk to meet our friends.  We stopped along the way in the gingerbread museum to get some very necessary and very cute sustenance. 

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Our friends (from DIS) had already been in Prague a few days and hit up most of the major sites, but we headed to the “little Eiffel Tower” together.  Its actually called Petrin Tower, and the Czech don’t really like it when you refer to their monuments as a lesser version of western european attraction.  Shocking I know.  Even before scaling hundreds of steps to the top, the view was pretty spectacular.

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Climbing the hundreds of winding steps on a rickety metal structure brought me back to my first time climbing the Eiffel tower.  I also learned on the ascent that all three of my travel companions were afraid of heights, which made for an interesting journey.  Once we reached the top, even though it was foggy, we could see over the whole city.  I was really impressed with Prague’s haunting gothic beauty (as was Arthur).  Heres a pic of what the tower looks like.  

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After this little bit of physical exertion we decided it was time for more food.  My friends had been raving about this pastry, which they called turtlenecks.  I never learned the real Czech name, but I did learn that I want to be in a committed relationship with this food.  Its dough wrapped around a spit, covered in cinnamon sugar, and cooked over coals.  Then you get to choose a filling which can be plain sugar, vanilla pastry cream, nuts of different varieties, caramel or chocolate.  Of course I got chocolate.  

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That wasn’t quite enough food, so we also got fried potatoes on a stick.  

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Then it was time to explore the castle and cathedral.  The castle complex is huge and on a hill near the Petrin tower, looking over the city.  We had been warned by the staff at our hostel that paying for a ticket at the castle was not worth it, so instead we wandered through the parts that were free to the public.  It was quite packed with tourists of many varieties.  I had trouble “feeling the history” when it was so crowded, I more felt like I was on an assembly line, filling from one place to the next, taking a series of obligatory pictures.  

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When I reached the church I took a moment alone and said Kaddish (a jewish prayer for the dead) since it was my aunt’s yartzheit.  I often find it hard to balance my “real” life with my experiences while I travel, but this was a really lovely moment of solitude where I was able to honor someone I love in a holy space and then transition back to enjoying my trip.

We left the castle complex and headed down to the Lennon Wall.  There was a guy and his guitar playing “Here Comes the Sun.”  I learned in the late 1980s the wall was a place of social expression for young Czechs rebelling against their government.  They called themselves lennonist (not leninists) and focused on john lennon’s messages of peace and love as their core doctrine.  Over the years the wall has been painted and repainted to the point it barely looks like its first iteration.  Also there are a lot of pink floyd quotes which seems a bit out of place.  It was confusing to stand next to these messages of peace, which represented the ideals of an entire movement.  It was inspiring and hopeful, but at the same time it was depressing that we are so far from accomplishing these goals.  I decided to focus on the positive and the perpetual protester in my heart got pretty damn excited, because who doesn’t love a little optimism and social rebellion.

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We walked back to our hostel and regrouped before heading out for some traditional Czech fare, but I will address that in a post thats all food!

Shoes on the Danube

“To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by arrow cross militia men in 1944-1945.  Erected 16th April 2005.”

A Cartload of Shoes

The wheels are turning, turning,
What are they bringing there?
They are bringing me a cartload
Of quivering footwear.

A cartload like a wedding
In the evening glow;
The shoes–in heaps, dancing
Like people at a ball.

Is it a holiday, a wedding dance?
Or have I been misled?
I know these shoes at a glance
And look at them with dread.

The heels are tapping:
Where to, where to, what in?
From the old Vilna streets
They ship us to Berlin.

I need not ask whose
But my heart is rent:
Oh, tell me, shoes, the truth,
Where were the feet sent?

The feet of those boots
With buttons like dew, –
The child of those slippers,
The woman of that shoe.

And children’s shoes everywhere,
Why don’t I see a child?
Why are the bridal shoes there
Not worn by the bride?

Among the children’s worn out boots
My mother’s shoes so fair!
Sabbath was the only day
She donned this footwear.

And the heels are tapping:
Where to, where to, what in?
From the old Vilna streets
They chase us to Berlin.

Abraham Sutzkever

A is for Arthur

Before I left the US my mother gave me two identical stuffedanimals that are little black and white dogs.
One is pocket sized and the other the size of  a football, she said they could come abroad
with me and she even made them their own passports.  I named them Edith and Arthur and decided I
could take pictures of them abroad to document my experience, especially since
I am not one for selfies.  The first half go his world tour will give you a preview of posts to come.  I
finally remembered to put Arthur in my purse when I was in Amsterdam, so I took my first picture of him
on the A of the iamsterdam sculpture.  

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He next appeared in Prague on top of Petrin Tower in Prague, czeching out the view. 

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And looking out over the water…

Later he relaxed on the overnight train from Prague to Budapest.

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Once we were in Budapest Arthur decided to try some of the local cuisine.

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Most recently Arthur went to Fishermans Bastion in Buda, Hungary for another great view.

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So far I have definitely gotten some weird looks pulling him out of my purse, but its turning into a really fun way to document my trip!

Going Dutch

We woke up early, packed our things and got out of the airbnb as quick as we could.  We headedtowards the rijks museum and the IAmsterdam statue.  The sun was shining which was lovely, and the
sign was not terribly crowded.  We took
the obligatory pictures in different letters.

Then we headed across the park to the Van Gogh museum where
there were sadly no pictures.  It was a
well curated four floor museum that was open and modern with huge spaces of
natural light.  We were very impressed
and the museum did an excellent job of walking us through Van Goghs personal
and professional development.  It
explained his influences, his friends, his family, his rocky relationships, and
how he influenced art.  It also had a few
works from contemporary artists for comparison.
It was an awesome moment (the old school definition, as in I was filled
with awe) to stand in front of the sun flowers and then the irises. 

After the museum we wandered through vondel park for a
little while.  The were few clouds in the
sky and the water was perfectly still which created beautiful reflections.

From the park we went in search of rijstaffel which is dutch
Indonesian food, but it was all the way across the city so we got side tracked
along the way.  We stopped by the bench from the movie/book The Fault in our Stars, where the two main characters have a moment.  The bench now has love locks attached to it and it is covered in quotes from the film.  I popped over the one of the oldest bakeries in Amsterdam and grabbed a traditional Stroopwaffel which we enjoyed on the bench.  

Once at the restaurant we went whole hog and ordered the lunch version of rijstaffel.  Soon enough the table was filled with different plates of food. As a self declared foodie I was prepared for a delicious southeast asian meal, but I was blown away  It was unlike anything I have every tasted, which is pretty hard to do.  The meats were cooked in coconut and peanut, with tons of veggies an unidentified crispy things. The most spicy dishes were served cold which was a pleasant contrast.  My only complaint was that the vegetables were definitely canned, but thats not a huge deal.  For anyone looking to give rijstaffel a try I would recommend Kantjil.

We then walked around the canals a little more and were feeling the effects of constant travel and our huge lunch, also we had our luggage with us.  So we opted for tourism that would allow us to sit down, a canal tour, which ended up being awesome.  For the first twenty minutes the person driving was in training and kept bumping into the walls of the canals which was comical but concerning.  It was nice to get a different perspective to look out over the city.  

Right next to where the canal tour finished, there was the Amsterdam cheese museum, which I felt obligated to visit.  It turned out to be a large room with hundreds of kinds of cheeses, and you could taste dozens of them, which I did. Then in the basement they had a cute little museum about the history of cheese in Amsterdam, which gave me the chance to dress like a milkmaid – dream come true.  

A few streets down we stopped for a very hipster but tasty cup of coffee.  It was called Head First Coffee Roasters.  The cappuccino was delicious, but it came with a little attitude and a lot of beards and flannels.  When I asked if there was wifi the barista scoffed a little and said no.  Anyway I would say the coffee is delicious, but be prepared for a little brooklyn-esque coffee culture. 

As the sun began to set, we wandered to central station and grabbed the train to the airport.  A few hours later we arrived in Copenhagen, which was very satisfying because I was returning to a familiar city.  It was the first time I recognized that Copenhagen was starting to feel like home.