Stockholm: Voulez Vous La Musique

Anyone born in the in the 50s, or the child of parents born in this period are familiar with the band ABBA. To date, they are the most successful pop band to emerge from Sweden, and have been only second in success to the Beatles. Furthermore, they are the only band from a non-English speaking country to ever top the charts of English-speaking countries.   

 I remember fondly the songs I listened to with my mother as a child, popular hits such as the “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia,” and “S.O.S.” would regularly feature on our car rides. Therefore, how could we not take some time to visit the ABBA Museum while we were in Stockholm?

 The museum documents how Agnetha, Björn, Benni, and Anni-Frid found their musical starts. It then demonstrates their creative process and the transpiring events that served as their inspiration. Memorabilia, outfits, and props are proudly on display while imaginative use of technology allows you to do anything from record a vocal track, dance in a music video, or take the stage as their fifth member alongside their holograms. 

 Tom and I tried the first two with mixed results. It turns out (although I’ve always known this), that I am beyond tone-deaf. Once I bowed out of trying to sing Dancing Queen, Tom’s solo vocals gained a much better score. It was abundantly clear that my inability to carry a pitch was bringing the team down. :(. We also tried to dance in a music-video but couldn’t manage to stop laughing. The hologrammed stage would have been interesting, but there was a line, and the performance would have been public to any passerbys. Stage-fright, a lack of dance moves, and not being a fan-girl were sufficient enough reason to hold back.

  
We then headed to the highest point in Stockholm to enjoy a breather and take in a scenic view of the city before heading back to the hostel for a break.

 After a brief repose, we grabbed dinner at an Irish Pub nearby before heading on an adventurous walking tour of our own. There are some well-documented odd, secret, and hidden items to be found around Gamla Stan, so Tom and I went on a hunt calling it our own Ghost Walk (quite a few of them were particularly morbid). We visited Hell, commemorated the Stockholm Bloodbath, and admired a Bartizan.

 One of my favorite stops was the statue, “Boy Looking at the Moon.” Arguably the smallest public sculpture in Sweden, it was sculpted by Liss Eriksson in 1954 and retells the memory of his childhood when he would sit on his bed and stare at the moon through his window on sleepless nights. It is made of sandstone and wrought iron. Superstition says that he will bring good luck to anyone that rubs his head. He was wearing a cute knit hat and scarf when we visited him, a gift that Stockholmers like to provide him with during the winter, so we merely patted him on his head. 

Alta: At First Sight

 The trade-off we made to stay in Alta, which is a bit off the beaten path, was having fewer day activities unless one wants to shell out $$$ to go dog-sledding or snowmobiling. I personally would have liked to visit the Sorrisniva Hotel, a hotel that is carved entirely out of 250 tons of ice every year, but at an entrance fee of $24, the price was too steep for either Tom or I to justify.

We intended to have our time in Alta be a bit lazy hazy, so we slept in and savored some extra sleep. As a result, we didn’t roll into town until the early afternoon. We popped-in to check out the inside of the Northern Lights Cathedral before grabbing some coffee and free wi-fi at a nearby pub.

The current design of the church is the result of a competition in 2001 that was won by a collaboration between schmidt hammer lassen architects and Link Arkitektur. The city council wanted an icon that would highlight Alta’s role as a gateway to the Northern Lights. In the words of founding partner John. F. Lassen, “The Cathedral of the Northern Lights is in its design a result of the surrounding nature and local culture. The building is a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,…The cathedral reflects, both literally and metaphorically, the northern lights: ethereal, transient, poetic and beautiful. It appears as a solitary sculpture in interaction with the spectacular nature.”

 The sun sets earlier in the North than it did in Oslo, so we were greeted by darkness when we exited the pub. Outside, waiting for us was a varied display of ice sculptures. Some depicted human forms while others were animal sculptures. My favorite, however, was a realistic human heart that had a beating red light inside it. The heart was enclosed by icy brick walls, and I interpreted it as a metaphor for the warmth and life that lies in each of us despite whatever cold, outer, exterior persona we may present to the world. Tom thought I was overthinking it, but I personally like trying to analyze the message an artist is trying to convey.

 We then hopped into the car for Day 2 of our hunt. This time we drove about 2-hours west. The forecast was looking good for clear skies, and based on the lessons from yesterday, we knew we had to look for the stars. After all, if you can see the stars clearly, then you know that clouds are not obstructing the view. Eventually, I started seeing a light green shadow to our back right. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was hallucinating it due to my deep desire to see the Northern Lights, but Tom pulled over to have a look and verify my suspicion. It turned out I was right!

 Not too long after, bands of green danced across the sky. Tom and I were so excited about our discovery that we couldn’t help but laugh, and hug, and smile. It was a glorious gift that the universe had presented us, the gift of light. After you truly see the lights with the naked eye for the first time, you know exactly what to look for. It is true what they say, that the lights dance. You can see the shape and the density of the bands and swirls change as the particles shift with the wind. I was so happy to be able to share the experience with someone that is so special to me. 

P.S. I didn’t exactly have the right photography equipment for this shot, so we faked the lighting we’d need by using the car’s headlights.  

Oslo: Munch and Vigeland

Edward Munch and Gustav Vigeland are two of the most notable artists with Norwegian descent, but for very different reasons. Each utilized a different medium but jointly they sought to evoke an interpretation of the human experience. One quite more morbid and grotesque than the other.

To explore the works of Munch, we visited the Munch Museum. He is best known for “The Scream,” which, to be honest, is exactly what I had hoped to see in the museum’s exhibits. Unfortunately, despite owning 2 of the 4 known versions of this drawing, neither were on display; Tom and I did not feel like paying an additional entrance fee at the National Gallery for the experience of seeing the original 1893 pastel, so we were pretty disappointed.

  In his pastel, Munch’s simplified forms and broad bands of garish color, focus the viewer’s eye on the agonized figure at the center. It’s form is that of a garbed skull who is commonly interpreted as being in the throes of an emotional crisis. The commonly accepted interpretation is that his drawing represents the anxiety and angst of the modern man. Munch had sucessfully looked within himself to depict his personal state of turmoil at that time. He expressed this with his own words years later, “You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

 Tom’s favorite was “The Sun,” which we didn’t see in person, butwas one of 11 murals painted by Munch on the walls of the University of Oslo’s Assembly Hall to celebrate its centennial  in 1911. Compared to the other works Munch is known for, this seemed bright and welcoming, a contradiction to his darker, more violent expressions.

 My favorite was “The Kiss,” which shows a couple kissing, however their faces are amorphously fused together representing their unity. Other interpretations, including one from the MOMA have more pessimistic analyzed it as showin, ” a loss of individuality, a loss of one’s own existence and identity.”

P.S. The Maplethorp and Munch cross-exhibit that was on display was a little too graphic for both of us. Robert Maplethorpe was an American photographer who bluntly addressed controversial topics through his work. All-in-all the pictures on display were far more erotic and vulgar than what we would consider “child-friendly.” 

Gustav Vigeland happens to be the designer behind the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His largest installation of sculptures in Oslo is in Frogner Park, so we went for a winter walk amidst turbulent flurries that wet our faces. Today was probably the coldest it’s been for us in Oslo since we’ve been here! 

 In total there are 212 bronze and granite sculptures. The most iconic of this is a monolith with shows 121 figures struggling to reach the top. Tom and I took some time to walk around this massive pillar, before we realized that the figures carved into it seemed to be dead or in pain. This could be attributed to the fact that experts consider his works to be expressions of Nazi or Fascist aesthetics. After all, he had been a Nazi sympathizer even after Nazi Germany unprovokedly invaded Norway in 1940.

And, in between our artist adventures, we stopped by to take a quick pictures with Oslo’s most photographed citizens, the tiger outside Central Station. FYI Tom does not seem to like being in pictures; he was not the least bit interested in taking a selfie with me and my new friend. 

  

Oslo: City of Tigers II

In 1870, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote a poem titled , “Sidste Sang”. In it, he illustrates a dramatic fight between a horse and a tiger. The tiger, metaphorically represented the dangerous city, while the horse symbolized the security of the countryside. This is where he first referred to Oslo as Tigerstaden, which represented his perception of the city as a cold and dangerous place. 

 This has not been the case for Tom and I. We have found this snowy, northern city to be warm and friendly. Our barista from earlier this morning graciously gave us a list of restaurants to eat at, and even attempted to teach me the word for “thanks” in Norwegian, “Taak”. (I hope I haven’t been butchering the word too much, but I always like to learn how to say “please” and “thank you” when I travel. I’ve found it is a simple way to show your enthusiasm for the local history and, even though they may laugh, the locals often appreciate your effort.) 

 Making use of one of the barista’s recommendations, we ventured towards Aker Brygge, a unique, waterfront development that was completed in 2014. It was formerly the site of a shipyard and industrial buildings. Vingen, a restaurant attached to the Astrup Fearnley Museet was difficult to find, but incredibly tasty! Tom had the Eggs Benedict, while I had their version of a Katz Pastrami Sandwich.

 After a brief break, we ventured back into the cold to explore the history of the Akershus Fortress. Construction of the fortress is believed to have started around 1290 when King Hakon V realized that the city needed a stronger defense center than that which currently existed. Since it lied adjacent to the sea, it allowed Norway to prosper commercially while providing the nation with a strong military presence. 

 The Akershus Fortress has never been successfully besieged by a foreign enemy. However, in 1940, it surrendered to Nazi Germany without combat. The Norwegian government evacuated the capital when it was unprovokedly assaulted.

  
Our feet getting wary, we decided to make our last stop for the day before heading back to the hostel to rest our laurels. The Oslo Opera House is uniquely designed such that the roof of the structure angles to the ground level. This creates an elevated plaza that allows pedestrian interaction with the building. Tom and I climbed all the way up and were greeted with a panoramic view of the waterfront.

As a structural engineer,the fact that this roof is merely supported by thin angled columns is intriguing. How, exactly did they analyze the load paths/patterns through the asymmetrical characteristics of the column geometry?  The minimalistic framing and specialty glass allows for optimal views of the surrounding water. 

 From the roof, and at ground level, we observed the sculpture, “She Lies.” The stainless steel and glass fabrication resembles ice and depicts a symbol of power for the region. As it lays on a transient concrete platform, it is free to turn with the bidding of the tide and the wind. I think the sculpture is a metaphor. For as quick as the tides change and the wind changes direction, so too can the power shift.  

P.S. Tom is currently passed out next to me. If anything, my boyfriend could certainly hibernate through a long winter if instinct required it of him. 😛

Travel: Elephants

imageElephants are creatures that are revered in India. According to Hindu Cosmology, the earth is supported and guarded by mythical World Elephants at the compass points of the cardinal directions. Sanskrit literature even attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when the elephants tire of their burden.

The deity Ganesh(a) is the god of wisdom, and he is distinctively represented by a human form with the head of an elephant, which was placed after the human head was either decapitated or burned from the body.

imageHowever, this is not how the Elephanta Caves, with origins dating between the 5th and 8th centuries, received their namesake. In the 16th century, the Portuguese named the island “Elephanta Island” in honor of a huge, monolithically rock-cut black stone of an elephant on a mound; this unfortunately has been relocated to the Mumbai Zoo.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 Despite being just 7 miles east of the port, the ferry ride took an hour to get there! Fortunately, I caught some great views of the Gateway of India, the exit causeway through which the last British troops passed through on February 28, 1948, signalling an end to British rule and the beginning of Indian independence.

In each of the caves, Shiva or Mahadeva, “Great God” is aniconically represented by a Lingam, a single rock rounded at the top. Aniconism is the avoidance of using images to represent divine beings, prophets, and religious figures.

However, I happen to find the monolithic rock to be an appropriate manifestation of Shiva.

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At his highest level, Shiva is considered limitless and transcendent, unchanging and formless. Why not abstractly represent him as something from nature that also adheres to these characteristics? Are rocks not powerful? Do they not withstand the test of the time?

I may not be Hindu, but even I was moved. I couldn’t help but place my palm against the rock and close my eyes, taking some time to summon my faith, and chant the Buddhist Mantra I learned as a child beneath my father’s wing.

Travel: Matrimony

Today, I was fortunate enough to garner an invitation to a traditional Hindu wedding as Nick’s plus one. (You may recall the various Saree shopping debacles that we encountered in Jaipur and Jodhpur).

imageUnlike a typical wedding, which tends to be a more serious and understated affair, Indian weddings are loud and energetic. The one we attended, was actually a 3-day affair (we chose to attend only 1 of 3).

It started with a Swagatam “welcome” ceremony. Under the raucous beat of drums, the Baraat “groom’s procession party,” consisting of family and friends, joyously dance into the building. In contrast, the bride’s entrance is a much more solemn affair.

 

The introduction between the families is made, and there is a Jai Mala, a garland exchange between the bridge and groom. During all of this, there is a constant flow of food and drinks circulating the room.

imageHonestly I had no idea what was happening for the majority of the ceremony, and neither did Nick. We had hoped to make the reception, which is when the bride and groom both perform separate choreographed dances to Bollywood music with their bridesmaids and groomsmen, respectively, but apparently that had occurred the day before. Nick’s friends, did however, regale us with some of their drunken stories from the previous night.

imageThe most significant part of the ceremony is the Saptapadi, a 7-step ritual. The bride and groom have a part of their clothing tied together, and they walk around the fire 7 times. The fire, represents Yajna, the divine witness and each circle represents the oaths that they make to each other. It is after this event that the bride and groom are officially considered married.

It was a vibrant affair filled with colorful clothing, diverse sarees, intricate henna, and shiny jewelry. The food selection allowed me to try some curries I’ve never had before. Nick and I even became best friends with the Chai-Man! I do wish, however, that I had known what was going on. Everyone is so busy carrying on conversation during the ceremony, that it was impossible to know what was occurring on the dais. 😦

 

 

 

 

Travel: Man Sagar Lake

This morning, we both enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in before heading for a walk around the Man Sagar Lake to observe the beauty of the Jal Mahal “Water Palace.” We even got to see an elephant just strolling down the street amidst the motorcycles and rigshaws, and a camel just resting its legs!

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Interestingly, Maharaja Madho Singh I constructed the complex in 1750 intending for it to be a lodge for himself and his entourage during duck hunting parties, it was never intended to be a palace.

imageIt is considered a classic example of Rajput and Mughal Architecture, and as we’ve seen often during our trip, composed entirely of red sandstone. There is a rectangular chhartri on the roof, and four octagonal chhattris on each of corners of the building. They are elevated dome-shaped pavilions that have become a signature of Indian Design.

Based on plain observation, one cannot derive the complexity of design and technological forethought involved in this structure. While we only see it as a one-story building, in reality, the palace has five floors in total, four of which are submerged in the lake

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As we savored the nice weather and strolled along the lake, we came across a costume peddler and decided to have fun and play “dress-up.” The most awkward part of this, was when they wanted us to pose and take a picture as a couple. [Insert Awkward Turtle].

 

 

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

India is still a conservative nation, so when they see a man and a woman travel together, assumptions are often made. Additionally, seeing an Indian and an Asian together is almost an unheard of circumstance. Fortunately, Nick and I had a good laugh about this.

 

 

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We wandered the area and found ourselves a nice open garden to take a seat in and relax, before grabbing lunch and heading to hike up to Galta Ji.

 

imageThe pilgrimage site lies in the town of Khania-Balaji, just outside of Jaipur. It is known for its natural water springs that accumulate in tanks “kunds”. Thousands come to bathe in these waters every year as it is considered auspicious. Additionally, some believe that the Saint Galav lived here. He meditated, did penance, and survived for years just drinking cow’s milk.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Galta Ji is also commonly called “The Monkey Temple” as a tribe of monkey lives there. Nick was being mean and joking that he had reunited me with my family. T.T.

 

 

I’ve self-perpetuated this ongoing joke when, a few years ago, I discovered that my strangely shaped thumbs coincidentally align with the thumb shape of a gorilla. It is all in good fun though, and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with my brethren.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

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