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Across the border

Written by Chaz on 15 June 2012

My friend Max, whom I met studying abroad in Sweden and who showed up a couple times on my abroad blog and again on this blog, moved to Detroit after we graduated to do Teach For America. Max is passionate about education, but that decision seemed to me to encompass a couple of pretty big sacrifices, not least of which was living in Detroit. I always enjoy visiting friends because I feel like I leave with a much better sense of what their life is actually like, and I was especially curious to find out what life in Detroit is like. My visit to Detroit coincided with a visit from Jeff, Max’s best friend from Wesleyan who now lives in San Francisco.

With few exceptions, Detroit was about as desolate as I was expecting. I quite frankly did not know there were places like it in the United States. The number of abandoned buildings is out of control — not just homes and offices, but even public buildings like an enormous former Amtrak station that was sold and then abandoned. There are some hints of life among the empty hulks, but the reality is that there’s no real path to recovery once you have so many unnecessary buildings. Detroit is a city of 700,000 that once held 1.8 million, and it shows.

So on Friday afternoon, we made a spur of the moment decision to ditch the Motor City and drive four hours northeast to Toronto. I was able to get hotel rooms on points at a moment’s notice, and about 90 minutes after conceiving the plan, Jeff, Max, Max’s girlfriend Amelia and I had hit the open road. We stayed outside the city on Friday night in Missisauga, a thriving suburb, before driving into the heart of the city on Saturday morning — stopping, of course, at Tim Horton’s for breakfast on the way. When in Canada, eat breakfast with the Canadians.

Toronto was booming — the opposite of Detroit’s bleakness. As we were driving in, Max commented incredulously, “What’s with all the construction?” Someone’s been spending too much time in Detroit.

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After checking into our hotel, we took a long walk down to the waterfront of Lake Ontario and returned to the city center past the CN Tower. Our hotel was right across the street from City Hall, a hulk of a concrete building that is fronted by an equally unattractive plaza containing a skating rink — full of skaters on this Saturday morning.

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We also stopped in a few boutique shops along Queen Street and began to get a sense of Toronto.

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In the afternoon, we got a free walking tour that took us to some of the sights near City Hall and our hotel, ending in Eaton Centre, an enormous shopping mall that several parts of the city underground.

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Thoroughly chilled, we retreated to our hotel for a drink in the hotel lounge. From the 43rd floor, City Hall didn’t look quite so bad.

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We walked to dinner at Campagnolo, which got great reviews online but was in sort of a random part of town and was too new a restaurant to even show on Google Street View (it showed instead a Coffee Time, apparently a Canadian coffee chain). Little did we know what laid in store for us. We ended up having one of the best, and most fun, dinners I have ever had.

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After laughing our way across Toronto all day, we were all in a celebratory mood, and we started with a few great cocktails before proceeding to our food, which was equally terrific. Our waiter was super fun and spent a good deal of the evening joking with us about the difference between the U.S. and Canada. We had long since detected a strong hipster vibe in Toronto, and our waiter could not have confirmed it more perfectly when he told us he was very curious about living in Portland, Oregon. We enjoyed a smorgasbord of delicious items from the very creative menu to share, none of which photographed well in the dim restaurant.

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The trendy area in which to go out has apparently migrated progressively westward in Toronto, from West Queen Street to an area that became known as “West Queen West,” then even further west onto Ossington Avenue, where we moved from hipster bar to hipster bar, more than confirming Toronto’s extensive hipsterdom, before calling it a night.

On Sunday morning, we took another long walk before stopping for brunch, at which we shamelessly and ignorantly quizzed our waitress about the Caesar, a Canadian cocktail that’s like a spicier bloody Mary.

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In the early afternoon, we returned to our car and set off back for Detroit. Though I have visited Montreal a couple times, it was my first time in Toronto, and I was very impressed. A Canadian couple had told me at a street wine stand in Chiang Mai that Montreal is Canada’s cultural capital while Toronto is its more soulless business hub. I definitely agree, but much like my hometown of Philadelphia, Toronto struck me as a city that is likely fantastic to live in, even if you can cover all its tourist sites in a short weekend visit. And more importantly, I had a fantastic time with Max, Amelia and Jeff, and Toronto was a great backdrop for it.

Indulging the tourist within

Written by Chaz on 30 August 2011

Erik and I began my third day in Stockholm with a major tourist attraction that I somehow missed during my first time there: Stadshuset, the city hall and home of the annual Nobel Prize banquet. Actually, “somehow” is a bit euphemistic, since on the day my program toured Stadshuset, I was playing hooky to visit Emmy in Barcelona. So, determined to redeem myself, I made visiting Stadshuset a priority of my return to Stockholm.

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Stadshuset sits at the bottom of Kungsholmen, an island just east of Stockholm’s business district. The posh neighborhoods of Kungsholmen are also the home of Mikael Blomkvist, the male protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Thanks to its location, the views from the grounds of Stadshuset are fantastic, and I took in the sights while we waited for our tour to begin.

IMG_3378IMG_3380IMG_3402At right, the omnipresent Citybanan construction as seen across Lake Mälaren.

The tour began in the “blue hall,” so called because it was originally intended to be blue. Today, the room is the home of the annual Nobel Prize banquet, which brings the laureates from all over the world to Sweden. Anyone can enter a lottery to attend the Nobel banquet, and the odds are actually not terrible. But the hall is surprisingly small, so guests, even the famous ones, even the royal ones, have surprisingly little room to sit and eat. Such is the suffering of glamour.

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We filed upstairs into the beautiful Stockholm city council chamber, which overlooks Lake Mälaren. Lawmakers somehow squeeze themselves in around Stadshuset’s busy tour schedule to manage the affairs of the city.

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Anyone from anywhere in the world is allowed to get married in Stadshuset, if you’re willing to waiting to get on a months-long waiting list, and our tour guide made a point of explaining that this is true for couples of any gender. Unfortunately, when you get into some of the lesser-used rooms, some of the art chosen by the building’s architect doesn’t exactly scream wedding to me.

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Our tour guide said that, in fact, there was quite a bit of outcry about some of the art in Stadshuset when people first saw it. But the designer prevailed, I guess.

After leaving Stadshuset, we walked along Norr Mälarstrand, the southern edge of Kungsholmen, past plenty of boats and adorable little cafes. Someday, I kept telling myself, I’ll be one of the beautiful people who hang out at these places.

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We turned onto Kungsholmstorg and walked up towards Rådhuset. When we passed a branch of Systembolaget, the state-run liquor store, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of journalism inside. As it turned out, the Absolut vodka, theoretically a domestically produced item, was about twice as expensive in Systembolaget as in the duty-free shops at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport. That’s one way of getting people to drink less.

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We took the tunnelbana to Rådmansgatan and walked across to Cafe Saturnus, which is well-known for its enormous kanelbullar, a Swedish cinnamon roll. We stopped for a fika, and though Erik resisted having a kanelbulle and stuck with a sandwich, I had traveled too far for such healthy nonsense.

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Leaving Saturnus, we walked through Humlegården, a large urban park, to Kungliga Biblioteket, the royal library, which is akin to our Library of Congress.

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We walked down to Stureplan, Stockholm’s fanciest square, where the most attractive and the wealthiest mingle. Being neither, we had to move on. The “mushroom,” visible in the picture below, is a common meeting place.

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We walked over to Östermalms saluhall, a food court that is a much fancier version of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and bears almost no resemblance to the food courts of Thailand or Singapore. The market is a feast as much for the eyes as for the stomach.

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We took the tunnelbana down to Gamla Stan to indulge me in one more tourist sight: the beautiful island of Riddarholmen, which adjoins Gamla Stan and overlooks Norr Mälarstrand and the bluffs of Södermalm. From Riddarholmen, we could see central Stockholm, Stadshuset, Slussen and all the way across to the Västerbron.

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We walked back to Gamla Stan and up to Stortorget, the historic center of the city and now a tourist mecca, ringed by cafes.

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We took the tunnelbana up to Fridhemsplan, where we stopped at Prisxtra, the grocery story of my youth. My favorite part of the Prisxtra was always the self-service salad greens station, where you can mix and match. And, as further evidence of halloumi’s popularity in Sweden, it was on special.

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We retired to Spånga for another night of grilling and relaxation.

Reflections on historical memory: Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 4 July 2011

Much more so than Thailand, Vietnam seemed to wear its past on its sleeve. When you think about it, the country has had a series of particularly unfortunate circumstances, between the French and American interventions. It’s pretty easy to see how those historical circumstances could lead to a strong sense of collective nationalism, resulting in the communism that tore the country’s economy apart in the ’70s. Though the government has taken a China-like tact since then, liberalizing the economy while maintaining tight authoritarianism politically, the nation’s socialist identity was evident from the moment we got our visas, which proudly proclaimed that we were welcome to one visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. (It’s also worth noting that Vietnam was the only country that required us to get a visa.)

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On our first morning in Hanoi, during our first walk through the city, we walked by a statue of Lenin on our way to a museum celebrating the great things Ho Chi Minh did for the nation, leaving there for a museum of party-approved Vietnamese art. Though we didn’t appear to have minders watching us, it was still a pretty surreal feeling. The most interesting part to me about all that is that the value system it reflects: above all else, communism — but above that, communist leaders. Sure, the nation Lenin was running didn’t turn out hugely successful, but at least everyone was equal. Well, except for Lenin, who was even more equal. It’s a different sort of truth. Uncle Ho did do great things for the country, in a certain sense. Vietnam was able to become an independent socialist nation, and if that’s your standard of evaluation, then he did an excellent job.

Similarly, at the Hanoi Hilton, the total denial that the Vietnamese soldiers did anything untoward to their American prisoners isn’t exactly doing the country’s reputation any favors. We haven’t forgotten that terrible atrocities were committed in that prison, even if the prisoners did leave alive, and lying about it is repugnant as well. I’m not exactly sure what they should say in their little museum, but perhaps that’s why you shouldn’t torture people. Much of the prison has been demolished to make way for a high-rise; maybe they should have demolished the whole thing.

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Unfortunately, the country, which is the world’s 13th most populous at 90 million, appears to have remained totally underdeveloped. As soon as we drove away from the airport when we arrived, we were surrounded by rice patties separated by dense jungle reminiscent of any Vietnam War movie. Hanoi sprung up out of nowhere, starting with a few ramshackle buildings and growing into the dense center of the city, which wasn’t all that much more finished.

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Interestingly, this apparently proud and defiant national identity didn’t seem to be reflected in the city’s restaurant scene. We found that the best, most authentic Vietnamese food was to be had on the streets, not in the city’s fine restaurants. Perhaps this is just because the nicest restaurants are funded by outside investors with the purpose of attracting outside tourists, but it didn’t suggest a culture of exalted national cuisine. In fact, I get that impression more from Vietnamese restaurants back home, which very much embrace the idea of bringing out the best from Vietnam.

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Our time in Vietnam was fascinating in a very different way than any of our previous stops. Hong Kong and Thailand are changing, even dramatically, but neither had quite the sense of truly being at a crossroads that I got in Hanoi. As I read the latest from each of the countries we visited, I’ll have a very different perspective on all of them after having been there, but I’m particularly intrigued about what lies in Vietnam’s future. In the meantime, I’ll have great memories of some delicious food.

The SciLi goes to Asia

Written by Emmy on 7 June 2011

An obsession turns international:

But seriously. Can’t you see the resemblance??