Like a bird on the wire. Like a drunk in a midnight choir. I have tried in my way to be free.
Leonard Cohen wrote the words to the opening verse of “Bird on the Wire” from his Hydra hideout in the early 1960s. The story goes that a 25-year-old Cohen retreated to Hydra to finish his first novel. He had been in London on a Canadian Arts Council Grant, uninspired by the cold and rain outside his Hampstead lodgings.
There’s something inherently special about eating in Athens that I can’t quite put my finger on or find the words to describe. But I think of tucking into a piping hot bite of moussaka in a clay pot with the Acropolis lit up like a movie star ahead of me. This scene, this blend of ancient human history with classic Greek cuisine is objectively extraordinary.
I’ve long been intrigued by Athens, even more so since moving to Germany nearly four years ago. I imagined it would be like any other European capital with exquisite architecture, walkable boulevards and plazas, and omnipresent relics of its history.
Some of that is true but it doesn’t make up for how wrong I was.
I’ve been on the record as saying that what I’d miss most about living in Düsseldorf is access to the Rhineland. Düsseldorf is as flat as Berlin, but you can get some scenic elevation in Siebengebirge and the trails along the Rhine, Mosel, and Ahr rivers.
Not so much with Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg. There are cartoon characters underneath ACME anvils with more topography than Brandenburg. So my expectations for finding a good hike around here were about on par with getting a burrito dripping with Cholula in Minsk. Fortunately, as with most things in life, I was quickly proven wrong.
You go to France for the food and wine, you go to Norway for the hiking. Thems just the facts.
But approaching the topic of hiking in Norway can be an intimidating endeavor. It’s both a small (population-wise) and large (territory and terrain-wise) country at the same time. There’s the temptation to try and do it all at once, somehow simultaneously without taking into account the limits of the human body.
You imagine all the views from the top without seriously considering the transportation to the trailhead or the hours of trodding alongside hills and mountains to get those vistas––and what that does to your body. Besides making you tired, it makes you hungry, and Norway is without exaggeration one of the most expensive countries in the world for purchasing food.
That’s why it’s best to go into Norway with the right attitude, and the attitude is beautifully Norwegian in nature. I’m talking about “Takk for turen.”
Sit tight, folks. You’re in for a long one. This is a sample chapter I’ve put together on my self-made Jewish heritage trip to Slovakia for a book I’ll hopefully get to write.
Northeastern Slovakia. It’s a place I never gave much thought of visiting. But that changed when I learned of the village, or the shtetl, that my great-grandfather came from outside of Bardejov. I had to go.
“Fuck this. I’m never doing this again. No more running.”
That’s all I could say to myself as I started another 200-meter climb with about six kilometers to go in the race. My legs wouldn’t let me run up anything resembling even the slightest ascent. They were shot from the previous 800 or so meters of climbing.
I was out of water to boot, having felt a false sense of relief after taking a drink at the last aid station. My throat was so dry, I couldn’t swallow a tiny bite of my Clif Bar without nearly activating my gag reflex. All I wanted in the world was to cross the damn finish line and be done with this mistake.
The following is part of my ongoing writing about exploring my Jewish heritage and ancestry through travel, religion, history, language, and food.
Planning a trip to Auschwitz is an awkward experience—and not necessarily for the reasons you’re thinking. First of all, “a trip to Auschwitz?” What is this, the Catskills? You’re not planning a trip, but, I don’t know, a visit, maybe? But it’s also not a nursing home where you might plan to visit your great-uncle, kept alive past his expiration date thanks to the miracles of modern medicine.
Language simply lacks the proper vocabulary for what a contemporary traveler is doing at Auschwitz. Paying your respects is the best option, but you don’t see that in the gobs of tourist material advertising a tour of Auschwitz. And that, in part, is why planning the whole endeavor is awkward. Booking transport in Poland isn’t straightforward and it’s a chore to find the right websites to make your bookings. Then after you schedule your tour at Auschwitz, you might realize your only option for a return to Krakow is a bus because the last train back has already left.
“Where are we?” I said to Melanie. “How have I not heard about this place before?”
We were in Walporzheim, walking through the village center—a convergence of two quiet streets with a couple of restaurants and a bus stop—during a sunset that looked like it was painted with acrylics. The orange-violet sky shrouded the valley in darkness, amplifying the quiet of this place we’d never heard of until about a week earlier. We’d only had a glimpse, but I could already tell that the scenery would be something spectacular as soon as we got onto the trails in the hillsides the next morning.
Walporzheim is just one of a collection of villages and towns that sit along the Ahr River, a tributary of the much larger Rhine that runs westward to the half-timbered village of Blankenheim. I selected it for this holiday weekend getaway because the Internet told me it’d be easy to get to by train and it was along yet another one of Germany’s multi-day hiking trails, the AhrSteig. But what’s appealing about the Ahrtal (Ahr Valley) on paper is greatly exceeded by seeing it in person.