Iceland is Hot
March leaves us yearning for summer, but by August we grow tired of the heat. Iceland isn’t the frigid place its name would have you believe. In fact, Reykjavik, the capital, has warmer winters and receives less snow than Boston. During summer it may be the perfect place to escape our scorching humidity. The weather is mild and dry, like those perfect late-September days we all love, and the sun barely sets. It’s only four hours away, and due to misfortunes the island country has been experiencing – economic and natural – it’s hungry for tourist dollars, so it’s less expensive to go now than ever.
Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland, but is by no means large. It’s more like a small town, with pleasant clean streets, and bright, colorful homes decorating the hills. There are boutique hotels to stay at, and along Laugavegur there are numerous shops and cafes that can keep your attention for days. If you’re into Viking history, there is much to see, including a huge statue of Eric the Red. The club scene is insane. And if you’d like to eat whale you can have it, freeze-dried and preserved since the ban.
Outside the capital there are endless opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, whether it’s hiking, horseback riding, cycling, or drinking beer under the midnight sun. The countryside is beautiful, mountainous, and so green. There are few trees, but the pastures and fields of wild flowers make up for it. The North American and European tectonic plates split the country in two, with a clean divide between the continents in the form of a deep trench. The massive Golfoss waterfall tumbles through a sharp ravine. There are gushing geysers (an Icelandic word) and natural pools of bubbling mud and boiling water, which leaves visitors questioning the country’s name. And don’t forget to take a dip in the Blue Lagoon – a lake of hot, cream-blue water resting in a lunar landscape of black volcanic rocks.
Iceland isn’t the place I thought it was. It’s very different from what I imagined. And I think you’ll be surprised, too.
Evolution in Edinburgh
I’m a science teacher and have found that 7th graders have an instinctive understanding of evolution. They know that if you die, you don’t have babies and nobody inherits your bad teeth or ingrown toenails. They know that if you live and reproduce, your babies will look like you. Yet according to a recent poll, only 40% of Americans believe in evolution. In fact, scientists have witnessed the evolution of organisms with short generations, like bacteria and some insects. Scotland brings to mind an example of visible evolution.
Edinburgh is a beautiful Scottish city full of heavy stone, gothic architecture built in medieval times. A species of moth called Edinburgh home. To camouflage itself from hungry birds, the moth had gray bodies that perfectly matched the city’s stonework. And then Scots began burning lots of coal, and black soot began to cover everything. The gray moths stood out in the black environment and were easy prey for birds. Over time, the gray moths had less offspring because they were busy being digested inside birds, and the only moths that survived and reproduced were ones with darker bodies. Soon, all the moths of Edinburgh were black just like their sooty surroundings – gray moths had evolved into black moths in a very short period of time. Over millions of years, such small changes that occur over a few decades can accumulate into changes so great that a new species forms.
Today, Edinburgh has cleaned up its soot, and the black moths have been devoured and replaced once again with gray moths who blend in with the clean stone buildings, but when I visited I wasn’t paying attention to moths since there’s far more interesting sites. High above the medieval old town, full of gothic cathedrals and tiny cobbled alleys, is Castle Rock. With each British invasion of Scotland, Castle Rock was usually the last to fall. Atop vertical cliffs stands a heavily fortified castle that today offers excellent views of Edinburgh and the countryside. From its ramparts a cannon fires each day at noon.
Restaurants serve strong Scotch and also haggis, a delicious mix of spices and ground mutton stuffed and cooked inside a sheep’s stomach. Outside the restaurant “Greyfriar’s” is a statue of a Scottish Terrier, named Bobby, who was the beloved pet of John Gray. John died and was buried in Greyfriar’s Cemetery, where little Bobby remained loyal for fourteen years atop his master’s grave, until he also died.
North of Edinburgh is the famous Loch Ness, a thirty mile wide lake, 800 feet deep. I saw no Monster, but the location is stunning, especially during Autumn when the water looks black, and green pines contrast with orange leaves of oak on the mountain-sides. Some believe that large ocean sturgeon have been mistaken for Nessie, but who knows. I lean away from a belief in Nessie, but the seven-foot coelacanth was also thought to be extinct but still lives, and hundreds of new species are found each year, especially in the vast oceans. Is it so far-fetched that plesiosaurus still calls the North Atlantic home? Evolution is difficult to imagine, yet it’s true.
“Prague or Sarajevo?” That was the question my wife and I had in Budapest. Bosnia made me nervous, because to me it represented war and atrocities. But a decade had passed since the war, so with hesitation, we left for the Balkans.
The journey was ten hours by overnight train, and it was an uncomfortable, sleepless experience. We shared our compartment with three overweight English girls who put their massive, dirty bare feet up on their bags as they slept – their big toes were the size of plums. During the latest hours of night, when one is naturally uneasy, grumpy Croatian and Bosnian border guards brashly slid open our door and demanded our passports. I looked out at the dark countryside of northern Bosnia and felt butterflies in my belly. Srebrenica was close, and demonic things, the murder of thousands of men, women, and children, had happened there not long ago. Even places without evil in their past can appear eerie and unwelcoming in the wee hours of night, and I yearned for sunrise. During those anxious hours I could not have imagined an innocent little child named Azamina existing somewhere out my window.
We arrived in Sarajevo before dawn to an empty platform. A few people got off, and the train soon vanished into darkness, its wheels screeching like a million frightened piglets. It would enter Serbia, and eventually Greece, a place I knew, a safe place where cruise ships disgorged hordes of fat Americans and their nagging wives. The people who got off with us disappeared and we were left in silence in an unknown country where, in my mind, the perpetrators of genocide would soon be waking.
In the lobby our footsteps and the buzzing of the lighting were the only sounds. We paused, disoriented, not knowing our plan. A woman sat reading a newspaper, and a man standing behind the counter of a coffee kiosk called to us in slow, effortful English. “Can I help you?”
We told him our guesthouse’s address. As we did so, the woman appeared. She spoke to the man, then she turned to us and said, “Thank you for coming to Sarajevo!”, and kissed us both on our cheeks. “Come, I will help you.” The man gave us free cookies and thanked us, and we followed the woman outside. She said she would call a taxi, and almost instantly one arrived. She then said she would call our guesthouse. She kissed both of us again, and within ten minutes, at no charge, we were greeted warmly by an elderly woman at the door of our hillside guesthouse. The sun was rising.
I felt ashamed for debating if we should have come to Bosnia, for thinking it a monstrous place. I realized that people who have suffered the deepest are also the most generous and humane. The countries that I have cherished the most, that I have been the most welcomed, are always those that I was discouraged from visiting.
There are few cities in the world that are more beautifully located than Sarajevo. Mountains draped in dark green pine forests surround a valley that contrasts its surroundings with the bright orange shingles of its inhabitants’ homes. Many cities overwhelm nature with their human growth, but Sarajevo seems to belong in its mountain valley no less than the trees.
The old Turkish Quarter is the historical center of the city, where cobblestone streets and alleys lead to cafes that serve yogurt drinks and thimbles of strong coffee. It was not uncommon to be embraced by merchants. Bascarija is packed with artisans working with copper and bronze; some have turned old tank shells and bullet cartridges into items like lamps and chairs. Nearby is the obscure Latin Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering WW1, without which WW2 could never have occurred.
There’s also the New Town, where chic shops sell Parisian style, and the youth of Sarajevo wear expensive jewelry and drink three euro lattes. Here you can see the mixture of the old and the new, the religious and the secular. Teenagers kiss vigorously on benches while old men nearby play giant chess. Christian churches, Jewish temples, and Muslim mosques are neighbors – only Jerusalem has such religious diversity in such close proximity.
But the war is still evident. Some people hobbled about on one leg. Most buildings were covered in bullet scars; some remained piles of rubble from Serbian artillery. Sarajevo Roses, the so-called scars left behind by mortar impacts that resemble roses, are common on the roads and sidewalks. Some are colored pink and are preserved as memorials to those killed by them. Many have plaques nearby listing the names of the lost – shocking that a scar two feet across could claim more than twenty human beings, people who were out at the wrong time, getting groceries, crossing the street, taking their children to school.
A guide who led us through the countryside explained that a quarter million had been killed during the four-year Serbian siege, yet in the end, it took NATO mere days to end it. Shame is with those who have the power to act, but do not. While showing us the shattered and scarred gravestones in a cemetery, another tourist was aghast that such disrespect could be shown to the dead, and our guide said, “Respect for the dead? How can you respect the dead when you have no respect for the living? Snipers killed people attending funerals here, mothers holding babies in their arms.” The past, no matter how horrible, must be spoken of and remembered. Perhaps not wanting to end our tour on morbid note, he told us that during a siege, it is very important to have plenty of books. "You know War and Peace, by Tolstoy? Very good book for the Winter, burns for hours."
And finally there was Azamina, the name that represents Bosnia to me. Too often we think of places as geographic locations, separate from those that live there. But a place is its people, a collection of human beings no different from the one you see in the mirror each morning. Azamina was but one.
Azamina was a pretty little nine-year old girl, one of many children we saw on their own in Sarajevo. She first approached us asking for money, which we gave. While in Sarajevo, we met her in the Turkish Quarter each day. She came to lunch with us, giggled over ice cream, and my wife took her shopping for clothes. Azamina didn’t speak English well, but we learned that she was an orphan, and lived in a community home. The siege of Sarajevo would have been nearing its end when she was an infant, and I imagined that perhaps her mother had been killed, or she had been abandoned during the chaos –a common story in Bosnia. When we left the city we embraced Azamina, said goodbye, and boarded a bus. With Sarajevo behind us, we remained silent, not sure how to feel.
Bosnia is a beautiful country, full of kind people, a place I highly recommend, but villains do lurk there, capitalizing on its fragile state, preying on the defenseless. Many young girls, who have no protection, no parents, are taken by the soulless, promised riches and security in faraway lands, and are then sold as slaves to brothels in Turkey, Russia, Asia, even here in the US, where they remain trapped and forgotten, suffering in silence. It is happening as you read.
I often think of Azamina, and I hope that she has grown into a happy young woman. I hope the villains of mankind did not find her. I hope she still lives in her beautiful Sarajevo, is safe with her people, and has not been forgotten. And I often think of Bosnia, a bruised land that showed me more hospitality than I deserved, and I thank it for being a warm and generous host.
Light and Dark
We entered Poland as thieves. We paid for third-class on the train from Lithuania. The luxury coaches were empty, so we sneakily spent the journey in a compartment fit for royals. The conductor eventually noticed us outside Warsaw. We played dumb, but in vain, and with our heads hung in shame we returned to the crowded third-class section.
Although Warsaw has a historic center with cobblestone streets, what was striking was its modern downtown with glass skyscrapers – Poland’s future. Throughout Warsaw are memorials noting events from the past, and you quickly realize that Poland has had much pain. In the past seven decades there have been two invasions and occupations. First were the murderous Nazis, who were replaced with the Soviets, bringing with them another serving of tyranny. But the shackles have been shed. It has been only a generation since the Polish have been free to govern themselves, and their eagerness to do so is epitomized by Warsaw.
In the south is beautiful Krakow, Poland’s cultural center. Whereas Warsaw looks to the future, Krakow remembers the past. Its buildings, unlike Warsaw’s, were not destroyed by the Second World War. Krakow’s Old Town has changed little since the 16th century. Architecture that is as artistic as it is practical surrounds the visitor. Most structures consist of hand-carved stone, and intricately designed clock towers and steeples penetrate the sky. At sunset when gas lamps are lit, and wine is sipped, and the sound of horses clopping echo about, the present is gladly left behind.
Nearby is Oswiecim, a quaint town surrounded by pasture and farmland. It will forever be cloaked in past horrors. In German, it is called Auschwitz. The gas chambers and ovens and ash pits and piles of human hair and prosthetics remain for viewing; photographs of such things do not at all replicate the horror one experiences standing before them. On a sunny, warm day, with birds singing, it is impossible to comprehend the evil that took place not so long ago in our world. A simple plaque reads...
We finished our time in Poland in Zakopane, high in the Tatras Mountains on the Slovakian border. The air was clean and cool, wood smoke came with the breeze. Pine forests climbed almost to the tops of the craggy peaks, where in the shadows snow and ice remain through summer. Atop Geiwont’s mile-high peak is a fifty foot crucifix. It is a site for pilgrims, and we followed a group of nuns to the top. Some were young, but most were elderly and managed the seven hour hike without complaint and with few rest stops. The top had amazing views, and beneath the crucifix sat the nuns, still faithful, smiling, despite the savage efforts of the Nazis and Communists to destroy everything in their paths.
As an American, the idea of Poland lies to rest my petty problems and complaints; my life has little need for urgency. It is a place of light and dark. If the Polish can experience what they have and move forward with optimism, with gratefulness, I certainly can.
Surprisingly, it isn’t the world’s smallest country; over twenty have less area. With dimensions roughly five by fifteen miles, it’s little more than twice Billerica’s size, and actually has less people. When taking the train from Austria to Switzerland, you can pass through Liechtenstein and never know it.
The capital, Vaduz, is so small it doesn’t have a train station, so we got off not knowing if we were in Liechtenstein. There was a chance we were still in Austria or had already passed into Switzerland. Without looking up from the pebbles she was kicking, a teenage girl with pink hair confirmed our location as somewhere in Liechtenstein.
We had no hotel reservations, so our objective was to find a room for the night. Normally it’s easy arriving in a small European town and finding accommodations, but only farmland and sheep surrounded us. Behind were jagged mountains.
We wandered with our heavy backpacks a while and grew annoyed. There were no people to ask directions. I eventually left Cindy with everything and jogged towards a church steeple far off, hoping a town was there. I found nothing. As I was panting on the roadside, a woman riding a bicycle approached me. She offered her bicycle, and in perfect English directed me to a hostel. She took groceries from the bicycle’s basket into her arms, and said she’d wait for me to return with her bike.
I found the hostel, which was a converted barn surrounded by a plowed field. Mountains rose at the horizon. I booked a room, got Cindy, and returned the bicycle, knowing the encounter would stick with me.
If not for being overrun by Swiss elementary students, the hostel was comfortable enough. Throughout the night we heard feet pattering and giggling in the halls, followed by a booming male voice cursing in German. Angry German seems to carry more authority than any other language.
The next day we attempted to see Vaduz Castle, home of the Liechtenstein’s prince and royal family (one of the wealthiest in Europe), but it was hidden behind scaffolding. We roamed the town, a pleasant place with a few shops and cafes, but decided to move on to Switzerland in the afternoon. We bought food at a market and the butcher was a young man who had gone to college in New York City for a semester. In his German accented English, he said that he hated the crowds and the traffic of New York, that Liechtenstein is the only home he’ll ever have. “The McDonald’s in Times Square has more people than my country.” And I bet on any day, more people do go through the doors of the Times Square’s McDonald’s than live in the entirety of Liechtenstein.
We lugged our backpacks to the post office where we bought postal stamps labeled “Liechtenstein” and stuck them into our passports, as all passing through the tiny country seem to do. There are no customs agents on Liechtenstein’s border, so there’s no way to get your passport officially stamped; postal stamps are the only proof that you’ve visited. We left by bus, and by the time I put away our bags and got comfortable in my seat, little Liechtenstein was gone into our past.