Malmö via Copenhagen & Kronborg Castle

I've been so busy these past couple weeks finishing up the Incredible Distance EP that I've fallen behind on my already-belated blogging! I was determined to catch up before leaving for Japan, but I ended up finishing this entry on the plane.

December 9

I left Bjerringbro early, in the dark. This was still my week of running in circles “like a ragged squirrel on a treadmill" ("верчусь как ободранная белка в колесе," as Kuzmin wrote). It would take a few hours to get to Copenhagen, and I wanted to see a few sights before continuing on to Malmö, Sweden, for my show that evening.

Fortunately, I had an excellent guide: Jacob, who had attended my show in Copenhagen two days earlier. We met at the train station, swung by his place to store my suitcase, popped into a little café for some tea, and caught a train to Helsingor, home of Kronborg Castle.

For some reason, when Jacob had asked me if I had been to the castle, I thought he was referring to Kastellet, a "star-shaped 17th-century fortress with ramparts," or Amalienborg, the palace where royal family lives. Both of these are in Copenhagen, so I was surprised at how long the train ride was.

Jacob got cozy on the train, sinking down and propping his feet up on the seat in front of him; I followed suit. It felt rebellious. On the buses in Eugene, the drivers sometimes make an announcement if they notice your feet are on a seat.

 A view of Kronborg across the water.

A view of Kronborg across the water.

Jacob let me use his extra train pass, which you're supposed to scan before boarding the train and again after exiting. You have to check in and out. I, of course, forgot to scan my pass when we arrived at Helsingor. I was with Jacob the whole time, and apparently he scanned his, but I missed it somehow. It wasn't until we had already reached Kronborg Castle that we (that is, Jacob) realized what I had(n't) done. He very kindly went back alone to scan the card, giving me some extra time to look around. Near the bridge leading to the castle, I saw some Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Black-headed Gulls, and my first Great Black-backed Gulls. After crossing the bridge, I saw some Mute Swans, one of whom was eating with great economy of energy.

I got our tickets — which turned out to be a good idea, as the line had tripled in length by the time Jacob returned. We joined the throng of people crossing another bridge leading to the castle. A Gray Heron skulked in a corner of the moat.

The courtyard was bustling and festive. It was difficult to know where to go or what to do. There was no obvious beginning or end, because the castle encircled (or ensquared) us entirely. A line was forming outside the closed doors of the chapel, where some sort of event was to take place. We weren't there for the event, so we went through the museum part of the castle. It was packed with people. The museum provided an overview of the castle's history and depictions of what life there had been like.

In the courtyard we had seen and heard a solitary caroling woman dressed in a dark, heavy-looking period costume, and she seemed to reappear at every turn, singing different styles of songs in different languages.

At one point, our route led us through the chapel on some sort of balcony-level walkway; the chapel itself was blocked from our view, but we could overhear the event that was taking place. A modest-sounding choir was singing "Operator". It was hard to explain to Jacob why I thought this was so hilarious. I think it was just a surprising song to hear performed by a choir at a castle in Denmark.

In a large, beautiful ballroom, Jacob pointed out Julehjerte (pleated Christmas hearts) on a huge Christmas tree. In another room, he pointed out a celebrity, the director of some successful film.

In between each segment of the castle, we inevitably found ourselves driven into the midst of a Christmas market. Some parts of the castle were temporarily closed, seemingly to drive more traffic into the markets. In any case, I already thought the castle was interesting and cool, and then we finally came to the gift shop, where I was surprised to see lots of Hamlet-related merchandise, much of it emblazoned with the quote, "To be or not to be."

I commented on the abundance of Hamlet swag, and Jacob said something like, "Well, yes, that's why we're here..." I was confused, but eventually, finally, I came to understand that this castle was the setting of Hamlet. Helsingor was Elsinore. Basically, my mind was blown, and I needed to rethink everything we had just seen. (Fortunately, the gift shop carried a handy little book with photos of the castle, inside and out, with corresponding excerpts from Hamlet. Jacob was so sweet as to get me this, and I read it when I got back to the US.)

We left the castle and Jacob starting leading us somewhere. As we walked along the docks, he talked about being a Danish folk dance instructor, and I told him about how I had danced at the Scandinavian Festival when I was a kid.

 Me and Ashley Delp Weimar (who is actually Danish) waiting offstage at the  Junction City Scandinavian Festival  in 2000.

Me and Ashley Delp Weimar (who is actually Danish) waiting offstage at the Junction City Scandinavian Festival in 2000.

 Han, the Little Merperson

Han, the Little Merperson

I had no idea where we were going, and I don’t know what I expected, but I was certainly surprised when a gleaming merperson appeared before us. Jacob knew I was interested in seeing the statue of the Little Mermaid, as well as the nearby Genetically Modified Little Mermaid, but both of these were back in Copenhagen. I hadn’t known there was yet another variation on the theme to be found in Helsingor.

A placard near this merfigure indicated the title of the work: the Danish pronoun “Han,” meaning “He”. Even statues are assigned a gender when they enter this world. I understood what the intention was – to create a male counterpart to la Petite Sirène – but under my queer non-binary gaze, this svelte individual exuded ambiguity. They were certainly petite, but this isn’t generally a characteristic associated with masculinity, or even necessarily with mermen. Was the pronouncement of a pronoun a coming-out? Or, on the other hand, doth the merman (or the artist behind the merman) protest too much? I have experience reading queer texts and reading texts queerly, but I’m an amateur where visual art is concerned.

In any case, this queer encounter (of the third kind, you could even say) was welcome after a fairly heteronormative week. (And it would only get queerer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

After this, we returned to Copenhagen, managing to squeeze in a viewing of the original (well, replacement of the original) Little Mermaid before it was time for me to hurry on to Malmö. The Little Mermaid wasn’t quite as tiny as everyone said, but it was true what I had been told – if you can’t find her, just look for the crowd of tourists taking photos. (And perhaps on a quiet day, look for the Mute Swans eagerly awaiting said crowd.) The sun had already set, but she and the swans were semi-illuminated by some dim spotlights, and probably blinded by the perpetual flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras.

At the train station, Jacob and I said goodbye and I hurried onto the train, which didn’t immediately leave. I was standing near the doors, and after a minute he approached and told me there were some seats open in the next car. I found a window seat, and it was still a couple minutes before the train departed. Jacob stood on the platform smiling, framed by the train window, people milling around him, and this became my parting image of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen and Malmö are separated by water, but connected by a tunnel. It’s one of those things that is remarkable to think about but altogether unremarkable to experience.

My Skyroam Wi-Fi connection took a minute to sort itself out after being underwater, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to do when we reached the first train station in Sweden. I had assumed I’d be getting off at the same place as everyone else, but from what I could tell, as many people stayed seated as disembarked. I hesitated, then took my chances and lugged my luggage out onto the platform. Passengers were filing through a gate in a fence, so I joined the queue. The friendliest border patrol officer in the world thumbed through my passport and said, “Single-entry visas… I don’t think you’re a risk for overstay!”

 Me, windblown in Malmö.

Me, windblown in Malmö.

Outside the station, the wind was ridiculous.

I weighed my transportation options and took an Uber to Eli and Kim’s flat. As was almost always the case when I took a Uber or cab in Europe, we reached the destination and the driver seemed to expect me to say something like, “Yep, this is the place!” or “Just over there would be great.” But I had never been to any of these places, so I always just pretended that the perfect location was exactly where we had slowed down. Touring solo requires you to feign confidence, approach unfamiliar buildings, and waltz right in. Trial and error can be quicker than finding people who know the answers and figuring out how to ask them – if not only because some of the time, you’ll get lucky.

Anyway, it only took a few minutes to find the entrance, and a few minutes to be let in by Eli. He and his roommate Kim gave me a warm welcome. It felt affirming to be in the company of people who were vegan and queer and trans and used my pronouns. (Eli had even asked in advance what pronouns I’d like to use in Swedish, briefing me on the gender-neutral options in Swedish. I opted for “hen”.) I sat on a sort of bench along the wall of their kitchen/dining area, and they fed me delicious porridge with cinnamon. They also had vegan caviar, which comes in a metal tube like an ointment. This blew my mind, but apparently lots of condiments come in tubes there. (This only blew my mind to a greater degree.) It was interesting to try some of the Swedish options for vegan butter and cheese. There were also some festive, Christmasy Swedish foods and drinks, such as pepparkakor, which are sometimes like gingersnaps but n this case were very soft, gingerbread-ish biscuits. (Eli generously gave me a package of them, which I somehow managed to restrain from eating until I returned to the US and could share them with Adam.) Some of Eli and Kim’s friends arrived, and we had some non-alcoholic glögg. It’s mulled wine, but you toss some nuts and raisins into your cup and eat them with a spoon before drinking the liquid. We also had some of this non-alcoholic beverage that was invented as a beer substitute, to reduce excessive drinking at the holidays. (Apparently it is available two or three times a year, with slightly different labels for different holidays.)

The show was sweet and relaxed. The applause after the first song scared the dog, so it was decided that everyone would snap their fingers instead.

After the show, as always, I was exhausted, and, as always, I stayed up too late, and, as always, I had to wake up way too early.

While dragging my suitcase through the apartment complex courtyard, the top handle – the one most useful for lifting the suitcase – broke. I don’t remember why I was carrying it instead of rolling it – maybe to not make too much noise. I found the metal component that had popped off, but I was in such a hurry that I forgot to look for my luggage tag. Later, examining the suitcase on the inside, it appeared to be potentially fixable. But I never got around to finding a screwdriver, and the suitcase handle remained broken for the rest of my trip. Finally, a couple days ago, Adam fixed it in less than a minute.

Bjerringbro and (Magical) Hjermind Forest

December 8

I started planning the Incredible Distance Tour in June, shortly after returning from the 2017 Japan Tour. My original plan was to tour the UK and western Europe, but I kept finding shows further east and further north. I found shows in Poland and thought, "Hmm... Kaliningrad is right there..." Then I found the show at Think.dk in Copenhagen, and I thought, "Hmm... Aarhus is right there... and Malmö is right there..." Then I found the show in Helsinki and thought, "Saint Petersburg is right there, I can't go to Helsinki and not go to Saint Petersburg..."

You get the idea.

I posted on Couchsurfing that I was looking to play a show in Aarhus. I soon received a message from Rasmus and Ane, who live near Bjerringbro, 45 minutes from Aarhus, in "a magical place called Hjermind Forest". I certainly couldn't say no to an enchanted forest. And I'm glad I didn't. Don't worry, this isn't one of my disaster stories — except for a minor mishap right at the beginning of the day.

I left Think.dk early that morning and caught the metro to the train station. I had bought train tickets in advance, so all I needed to do was find my platform. I'd have more than enough time.

I watched each metro stop go by, and I was pleased to see that we were right on schedule. Then, maybe a stop and a half from the train station, we came to a halt. There was an announcement in Danish. We sat there. One minute. Two. Five.

Finally, we stared moving forward again. When we pulled into the station, I was ready to bolt out and run to find my train. I dashed to the schedule screens, and couldn't figure out which platform I needed. I hurried over to some cops and asked them, and they shrugged and said (basically) they didn't know anything about anything. I ran into the ticket office and asked, frantically, "What platform for this train?"

A ticket agent looked at a clock on the wall and asked me, "For what time?" It seemed to me that it should have been obvious which train I was trying to catch — the one that was about to leave — but I told him the time. He said, 'Why, that's now!" and I said, "I know!!" And with unbelievable slowness, like an Ent, he said, "If you are running, and if you are very lucky, track 6." I thanked him and ran like my life depended on it, my chest burning, and when I reached the platform, the train was still there but the doors were closing. And then it was gone, and I stood there, panting and feeling deflated. And irritated, because if the ticket agent had just told me what track to go to in the first place, I definitely would have made it.

I trudged back to the ticket office, in no big hurry anymore. The ticket agent looked smug and said, "Ah, it was already gone," and I responded bitterly, "No. It was there. The doors just closed before I could get on."

He directed me to a desk and another ticket agent, who said, "Ah, you were late? I cannot just give you a new seat, you must buy another ticket." Seeing how crestfallen I was, she asked me why I was late, and I explained about the metro. A look of commiseration washed over her, and she said, "Ahh, yes, I understand!" She gave me a new ticket, which was a huge relief.

While waiting for the next train, I sat on bench to write some postcards. Immediately, a guy approached me and asked me for money. I offered him food, and he said no, he wanted money. I said I didn't have any cash and he said we could go to an ATM. He said he needed beer, that he was an alcoholic and was suffering from withdrawal symptoms, and I said that sounded difficult but that food was the only thing I could give him. Annoyed, he finally gave up and wandered off.

The train was fairly crowded. My seat was at the end of a car in one of those arrangements where four seats are facing each other. My neighbors for a couple hours were a mother and her children. I seem to remember there being three children, but it may have been two children who were just all over the place. One of the kids was talking basically the entire time, and when they weren't talking, they were singing or whispering (sometimes in Danish, sometimes in English). (I'm not saying this in judgment — I'm just trying to paint the picture for you.) For a while, they were whispering, "No babies at the train, no babies at the train, no babies at the train... no job is too big, no bob is too small... no job is too big, no bob is too small..." Eventually the mom asked, in a tone that was maybe annoyed but possibly slightly concerned, "What's too big, what's too small?" And the kid just looked at her silently.

(I Googled the "no job is too big" thing and it turned out to be from something called Paw Patrol.)

I tried to take some video of the scenery passing by, but it's difficult to see anything past the grimy train window. You can hear the kid talking, though. (Maybe someone who speaks Danish can tell us what they're saying.)

Footage of my dirty train window, and possibly the world beyond it.

The first thing I saw when I arrived in Bjerringbro was a lot of bicycles.

 Double-decker bicycle storage at the train station in Bjerringbro.

Double-decker bicycle storage at the train station in Bjerringbro.

My first goal in Bjerringbro was to go pee at the train station, which didn't turn out to be possible. Always make use of the washrooms on the train. You just never know.

 Hooded Crow in Bjerringbro.

Hooded Crow in Bjerringbro.

So I started the 45-minute walk to Rasmus and Ane's house. I didn't find a place to pee, but I did find more Hooded Crows. (I had seen my first Hooded Crows a few days earlier in Kaliningrad.)

I went through the quaint little town. Cute little shops gave way to cute little houses, which in turn gave way to gas stations and the headquarters of Grundfos, the world's largest pump manufacturer,  which finally gave way to fields, Christmas tree farms, and Hjermind Forest. I probably appeared to be hopelessly lost, wheeling my suitcase down the motorway, further and further out of town.

 The motorway I walked along, and a first glimpse of forest.

The motorway I walked along, and a first glimpse of forest.

At Rasmus and Ane's adorable house, I finally had the opportunity to pee. Then I thought I'd go experience the magic of the forest, but before I even made it out of the house, I saw a Marsh Tit in a tree in their yard. They look a lot like various other tits, but it was still exciting to see a new species in a new place.

 Marsh Tit.

Marsh Tit.

I entered the forest, crossing by a small sort of reservoir filled with clay-colored water. The trail had sloped down steeply from Rasmus and Ane's house, leveled out, and then rose again. I arrived at a clearing where there were various surprising structures.

 The Cabin in the Woods.

The Cabin in the Woods.

 The Three Little Cabins in the Woods.

The Three Little Cabins in the Woods.

The first building was apparently some kind of cabin. It had pretty windows and doors and a thick thatched roof. In an adjacent clearing, there were three squat wooden structures like flattened cabins. They looked a little bit spooky. There was a distinguished-looking placard on the path, and I imagined I had stumbled upon a UNESCO Heritage Site, but Rasmus later told me they were just shelters you could rent to camp in.

There were birds hanging around this clearing, mostly a lot of tits — Marsh Tits, Eurasian Blue Tits, Great Tits — as well as a few European Goldfinches, a Goldcrest, and a couple of Eurasian Blackbirds.

 "Come explore Denmark's outdoors." You know, just like Charlotte Gainsbourg does in Antichrist.

"Come explore Denmark's outdoors." You know, just like Charlotte Gainsbourg does in Antichrist.

Being in the forest in Denmark naturally brought to mind that video on The Onion (which is a satire news site, in case you don't know) about a Denmark tourism campaign created by Lars von Trier (Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed By Lars Von Trier). ("Tourism officials hope the acclaimed Danish director's bleak vision of unsettling sexuality and brutal violence will attract more visitors to their country.")

I made my way back to the house, and soon Ane (and the dog) came home from work . (I had gotten in earlier using a key they'd hidden for me.) Ane was very friendly and fun to talk to. She and Rasmus are both educators who work with children. Ane and I sat at the table cracking nuts and eating dried fruit while she told me some recent activities she'd done with the kids. I was impressed by how outdoorsy the activities were, even in December.

Eventually Rasmus arrived — on roller skis. I had seen some of these in the bathroom and had no clue what they were. I thought they must have something to do with accessibility, somehow. But it turned out they had just been drying after being washed.

Rasmus played with the dog, or the dog played with Rasmus — they both had an abundance of energy to expend. It was especially impressive, considering Rasmus had just worked with kids all day and skied home!

Ane made a lovely dinner that definitely involved bread and salad and almost certainly involved soup, though for some reason this part of my memory is fuzzy.

 A fun little stage set-up featuring a solar system backdrop and assorted gymnastics equipment.

A fun little stage set-up featuring a solar system backdrop and assorted gymnastics equipment.

We got ready to go to the venue, which for this night's concert was a building that used to be a school but now apparently served various purposes as needed. We set up in the gymnasium against a solar system backdrop; next to each planet was its corresponding astronomical symbol, and then there were also some bonus characters, such as a turtle.

To my right and to my left were a pommel horse and a vaulting box, respectively. I dragged the pommel horse over to the piano to see if I could sit on it to play, but it just wasn't practical.

Rasmus had managed to get me some press coverage in a local paper, which was exciting. The audience ended up being rather small, thanks to a live broadcast of a significant sporting event at the same time as my show. Nonetheless, it was a very nice show, and I'm so grateful to Rasmus and Ane for all the work they did to make it happen.

When we left the building after the show, the night sky was full of stars. Rasmus was locking up, and Ane and I were walking to the car. We passed the corner of the building and were immediately struck by an absurdly cold wind that was no longer blocked now that we were in the openness of the parking lot.

Soon, though, we were back in their warm, cozy home in the forest. Nestled in my comfy little bed in the attic, I wrote a few postcards and dropped off to sleep, wishing I could stay a few days to wander through the forest and meet more of its inhabitants. But it's good to save something to look forward to for next time.

Copenhagen: Challenging the norm

December 7

As with Poznan, it was already dark in Copenhagen when I arrived. Fortunately, I would be able to do some sightseeing a couple days later. That night, I would be playing a show at Think.dk, a "co-creative community and think tank" dedicated to saving the world. It would also my first (and so far only!) Low-Fi Concert. Low-Fi is another world-saving organization that facilitates intimate concerts like the ones I tend to play.

On the way to Think.dk, I was able to talk on the phone with Adam (my partner), which hadn't been possible for several days. The weather was blustery, and my suitcase wheels became cacophonous at every stretch of cobblestones — but patchy, substandard communication is a hallmark of life on tour.

I use Skyroam to stay connected, and it's almost always satisfactory, but my service tends to go AWOL whenever I'm on a fast train — which, on tour, would probably be the most convenient time for me to talk. And each day, when I reached the site of my next concert, it was important to be present and connect with my hosts. I was in a new place every day, but for my hosts and the people attending my shows, the new variable was me. So the opportunities to talk with Adam were few and sometimes far between.

Somehow, I managed to both talk on the phone and successfully navigate to the courtyard where Think.dk is located. The neighboring gym was a hive for fit Danes who buzzed in and out as I hovered nearby in an archway, avoiding the rain.

After a few minutes, I hung up, and it was time to get back to business. I approached the glass door of Think.dk. There was only dim light to be seen through it. I rang a doorbell, and when no one opened, I checked my phone to see if there were any messages from Anja. Then, I tried actually opening the door, and of course it swung right open. Up the stairs I went, then through another door. I remember thinking at that moment how strange it was to communicate with people living thousands of miles away, to see pictures of a room and a piano, then to suddenly be there in that room, shaking those people's hands and getting ready to play that piano.

The room was simultaneously open and cozy. Its design was impressively multifunctional — it appeared ready to accommodate a yoga class, a craft workshop, and a slumber party, with only minimal adjustments in between. For tonight, though, it was a concert venue.

 My low-fi shot of the stage setup.

My low-fi shot of the stage setup.

I got settled, and Anja generously fed me some delicious pumpkin soup with bread. Martin's kid Romeo opened the little door for December 7th on his advent calendar, and dropped the chocolate into his soup. While Anja and I chatted, Romeo worked on his Christmas wish list. He showed off a brand-name Santa hat he bought on the way home from school. Anja showed interest, then as an aside to me sort of shook her head in disbelief; not long ago, Romeo didn't think about brands at all.

The end-of-year holiday season is a peculiar time to be traveling. If you're traveling in places where Christmas is widely celebrated, you find yourself becoming privy to people's personal traditions. You see how they wrap presents and where they store them (under a tree? on a tree? hanging from clothespins along a length of twine attached to the wall?). You sample their holiday cuisine (more on that when I write about Sweden). You hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" everywhere (or at least in the UK, Poland, Russia, and France).

After dinner, I got ready for the show. I was excited to be playing a real piano, and to have the support of Think.dk and Low-Fi Concerts.

 Another low-fi photo, this one of a think.dk sticker that says "#24: Challenge the norm". 

Another low-fi photo, this one of a think.dk sticker that says "#24: Challenge the norm". 

As for the show itself — what can I possibly say when Erika Bálint from Low-Fi has already written so beautifully about it? Read her account of the evening here — it was, as she says, heartwarming. (Thanks again to Low-Fi and Erika for using they/them pronouns for me! Let it be a lesson to everyone else.) It was such a joy and an honor to play this show, and to meet Erika and Delia and Jacob and everyone, to talk to you and answer questions and share songs and some of the stories behind them. Thank you all for braving the weather and taking time out of your schedules in a very busy season to come see the show. I hope I can return to Copenhagen soon.

And in a way, I will, at least in my memory and on this blog, because I did return on the 9th of December. But first, I paid a visit to an enchanted forest near Bjerringbro, where I played my next show.

 I laughed when I saw this in the office. It has a slightly different tone than #24, "Challenge the norm". "#23: Feeling a bit stiff? Maybe it's the stick up your ass!"

I laughed when I saw this in the office. It has a slightly different tone than #24, "Challenge the norm". "#23: Feeling a bit stiff? Maybe it's the stick up your ass!"

Poznan, briefly

December 6

I left Kaliningrad by bus at 6:00 AM (Kaliningrad Time); when I arrived in Poznan, by train, it was 3:30 PM (CET) and nearly dark. It was raining, on and off.

Outside the busy main station, I tried to navigate toward the dot representing the Meeting Place where my Uber would arrive. Taxis seemed to be picking people up right in front of the station, but the dot was across the street in a parking lot. I dragged myself and my bag across the street, where I realized there was a fairly short but nonetheless impassable fence separating me from the dot. I walked along the shoulder of this road to the entrance to the parking lot, and headed toward the dot.

But although the dot appeared to be in the parking lot, it was always somehow closer to the station than anywhere I could stand. I doubled back to the parking lot entrance, wandered around all in front of the station, trekked back and forth across the road a few more times, tried the parking lot at least once more, and eventually realized that the location name associated with the dot was just the spot outside the station. (I was very tired and hungry.)

Traffic was heavy, as was the drizzle. I had imagined I'd see some sights from the car, and I suppose I probably did...

 Blurry-outline-seeing in Poznan.

Blurry-outline-seeing in Poznan.

Eventually I was dropped off at Zemsta, a vegan/anarchist restaurant, bookstore, and gallery. I ordered a Polish specialty, kotlet schabowy — a breaded cutlet (usually pork; this cutlet was soy-based), mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut.

 Vegan kotlet schabowy with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut.

Vegan kotlet schabowy with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut.

It was the first real meal of my day, and it was incredibly filling. This was a rare occasion where I couldn't finish what I was eating; I think I left two bites on my plate. It was such a small amount, you'd think it should have been possible, but I couldn't even look at it directly without getting queasy.

Instead, I went to Aleksandra's flat to get ready for my next show. Aleksandra had generously offered to host a concert on Mikołajki — Saint Nicholas Day. She arranged a very nice table of festive treats for the concert attendees. I took some time to collect myself, take a shower, and prepare for the show.

The concert was, like many of the shows on this tour, attended mostly by people from the Couchsurfing community. Interestingly, one attendee, Joanna, had hosted Iza (my host in Gdansk) when Iza visited Poznan to see a Frida Kahlo exhibition. It was also interesting to see, not just in Poznan but in many cities, how the people who attended my shows sometimes knew each other or had a connection of some kind.

We had some fun conversations at this show. At living room concerts, there are sometimes ridiculous tangents and thought-provoking group discussions. (More reasons why you should host a living room concert. It's easy and it doesn't have to cost you anything. Email me!)

Milena brought vegan cookies, which I appreciated (and ate several of).

Though it was a holiday, it was also a weeknight, so the evening didn't go too late. This worked out well for me — I got at least a tiny bit more sleep than I had the previous few nights.

(Side note about Europe: so many bathrooms have light switches on the wall outside the bathroom. So when you're in there, someone else could turn off the light and you'd just be screwed.)

I still had an early start the next morning, of course. I had booked my flight from Gdansk to Copenhagen before the opportunity to play in Poznan came along, so it would take 5+ hours on trains just to get to the airport. The flight itself took only an hour, and then I was in Denmark.

Kaliningrad: сердце тёплое

December 5

The distance between Gdansk and Kaliningrad isn't incredible — a drive of approximately 115 miles (or 185 km) — but the bus from Gdansk to Kaliningrad runs only once daily and departs at 6:00 AM.

My previous day had started, impossibly, at 3:00 AM (GMT) in Winchester, UK, and ended around midnight (CET). Thus had begun a week of burning the candle from both ends every single day: waking up before 5:00 or 6:00 AM, spending the first half of the day on planes and trains, navigating completely unfamiliar cities, sightseeing for a couple hours when possible, getting acquainted with the next concert's hosts, setting up for the show, performing, being present with the people who had so graciously given me their time and attention and other resources, then finally trying to sleep for 5 hours before waking up and doing it all again.

Oh, and eating. I must have eaten at least a few times.

Touring is exhausting, especially for an independent musician. Support independent musicians. Share their music, buy their merch. If something they wrote is important to you, write to them and tell them.

Okay, back to the travelog.

Before leaving Iza and Ola's flat, I neglected to refill my water bottle, so I had only a few sips to last me the entire trip to Kaliningrad. And while it should only take 2 and a half hours to cover the distance between Gdansk and Kaliningrad, there's no telling how long you might spend at the border.

Before we reached the border between Poland and Russia, the driver gave us an opportunity to use a restroom and do five minutes of duty-free shopping. I searched desperately for water and found none.

We got back on the bus, drove to a checkpoint, and the driver locked the bathroom. (Apparently this is the rule, the bathroom has to be locked and unoccupied throughout the whole border-crossing process.) An official boarded the bus and strolled down the aisle, collecting everyone's passports into a stack and then leaving the bus with them. After several minutes, an official (the same one?) returned and asked who the American was, and I sheepishly raised my hand. My passport was given back to me, sort of separately from all the others for some reason.

Everyone then had to drag themselves and their checked luggage into a sad little building. The interior had the brittle, jaundiced quality of ancient Tupperware. The lighting seemed to be off, and other than us bus passengers, the room appeared to be abandoned. There were some little booths and flap turnstiles in the middle, separating us from a derelict baggage scanner. I glanced around a little less than hopefully. No drinking fountain.

We were a loose, sleepy group, until an official woke us up with an order to get back behind a line that no one had noticed. He then asked who the American was, and I once again identified myself, reluctantly. He gestured for me to follow him, and briskly we passed through the flap turnstile, at which point he spun around and, aghast, told me to go back through it.

I returned to the other side and stood there, waiting to be called forward, and then heard a knock-knock-knock to my right. A tight-lipped official withdrew her hand from the glass of her booth, which was so dark as to appear unoccupied. She took my passport and thumbed through it, then held it up in front of her and instructed me to face her squarely. Her eyes moved from my photo to me, back and forth a few times. She spent some time typing on her computer, and asked me a few questions about why I was visiting Kaliningrad. Then, at last, she stamped my passport and sent me through the turnstile.

Another official had emerged from somewhere to operate the baggage scanner and, inevitably, conduct a more thorough inspection of my bag. The items under particular scrutiny were my little box of business cards, and another small box of tour magnets.

Finally, I was allowed to move on to the post-inspection waiting area. There was a beverage machine, but it served nothing but coffee. I was parched, but I was also overheated and I don't drink coffee. In lieu of liquid refreshment, I figured I could at least wait for my bus in the refreshing wintry air.

A few seconds after I went outside, men in ushankas were chastising me and ordering me back into the building I'd just escaped from. Sulking, I headed inside. I was comforted when various fellow passengers attempted the same thing and were also reprimanded.

 An ushanka-wearing Russian border control officer stands outside a small office building.

An ushanka-wearing Russian border control officer stands outside a small office building.

When I reached the city, I was supposed to take a bus to meet Vlad, who organized my show in Kaliningrad. I didn't know how to buy a ticket, but I got on a bus and hoped for the best.

I didn't see anywhere to buy a ticket. Maybe it was necessary to buy a ticket from a machine before taking the bus? I just stood there on the bus, not knowing what to do and hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble. (In Gdansk, some jerk ticket inspector on a train made me pay him approximately $30 USD when I had the wrong kind of ticket, even though the ticket itself cost only a couple dollars.) A middle-aged woman wearing some sort of official-looking bag noticed me and approached me, and I realized with relief that you just buy your ticket directly from such a person. It's a very laid-back system. If you need a minute to find your money, she just sits down and waits, or she comes back to you later. If you need change, she makes change.

It was a pleasant experience, but I missed my stop. I crossed (ridiculously wide) Leninskiy Prospekt and caught a bus heading in the opposite direction. Yet again, I missed my stop. At this point, I decided to walk to meet Vlad. While trying to find him, I saw some Eurasian Jays (having previously seen only one, very briefly, in Karuizawa, Japan), some European Blackbirds, and — most excitingly — my very first Hooded Crows. They were pecking around in the grass on Kant Island (a.k.a. Kneiphof or Остров Канта).

 I finally met Vlad — an incredibly sweet, thoughtful, talented person with so many incredibly sweet, thoughtful, talented friends. We chatted as he led me to the flat of his friend Liliya (who is, I think, an oceanographer), where I would stay that night. I glanced around the courtyard and tried to soak it all in: the overcast sky, the puddles, the assorted cars parked haphazardly on dirt among sparse, bare trees, the shack bearing the graffiti “ПРОСТИ МЕНЯ! Я ЛЮБЛЮ ТЕБЯ!!!”

Once in Liliya’s flat, I finally quenched my thirst, gulping down a glass of water and refilling it immediately. Liliya kindly offered to make me some vegan food, undoubtedly saving my life. There in the kitchen, Vlad played his song “Сердце безголовое” (“Headless heart”), as Liliya cooked and I sat mesmerized.

Vladislav Barabashov plays his song "Сердце безголовое," as he did in Lilya's apartment.

After we ate, Vlad gave me a walking tour of Kaliningrad. Many people I met lamented the dreary weather and said, “Kaliningrad is beautiful in summer.” I found Kaliningrad to be beautiful even in the drizzle. But coming from Oregon, I knew exactly what they meant — I say the same thing about Eugene.

 Kaliningrad and some Black-headed Gulls, with Königsberg Cathedral shrouded in mist.

Kaliningrad and some Black-headed Gulls, with Königsberg Cathedral shrouded in mist.

We walked alongside the river — which was teeming with Black-headed Gulls, particularly near the bridges — and encountered one of Vlad’s friends. Not long after this, we ran into another friend. Both times, he gave them a big hug in his big coat. As we walked on, he said, “Usually people shake hands, but when I see someone I know, I like to hug them.” We talked about the show, and he said he hoped the evening would be тёплый — literally, warm, or in this case, heartwarming.

We crossed the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост), which leads to Kant Island. This is one of those bridges that everyone puts romantic padlocks on.

 I happened to notice a declaration of queer love on the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост).

I happened to notice a declaration of queer love on the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост).

The island itself used to be the site of a town, and the university where Kant taught, but most of it (and the city of Königsberg in general) was destroyed in World War II. Königsberg Cathedral was left in ruins nearly half a century and was only reconstructed in the 1990s.

 Königsberg Cathedral.

Königsberg Cathedral.

In front of the cathedral, I saw my first Russian stray dog. The dog looked dead, but was only sleeping. I asked Vlad where the dog's human was, and he told me this was a независимая собака, an independent dog.

 Независимая собака.

Независимая собака.

We walked on and I was excited to see Дом Советов — The House of Soviets, a hideous work of brutalist architecture that the Soviets built to replace Königsberg Castle. It was constructed between 1970 and 2005 and has never been used for any purpose whatsoever.

 The House of Soviets, a.k.a. the Monster or "buried robot".

The House of Soviets, a.k.a. the Monster or "buried robot".

Eventually, it was time to go to Катарсис (Katarsis) to get ready for the show. We transported ourselves and Liliya's keyboard in an enormous taxi van that Vlad called a "minivan". 

Katarsis was a cozy, intimate little independent bookstore, café, and performance space. I'm so grateful to Vlad for finding such a perfect venue for my show, and for organizing it. And I mustn't forget his friends and family. Elisaveta, Vlad's wife, made adorable tickets, and Rita also helped a lot with setting up. Everyone was so wonderful.

The show went amazingly well. I think it was one of the best shows I've ever played. The audience was so enthusiastic and appreciative. I felt an unfamiliar nervousness when I was playing "Japanese Garden": I was going to be singing in Russian for an entire audience of Russian people. I focused on performing the song like I normally would, and the English and French sections breezed by. Then, suddenly, the moment of truth (или момент правды) was upon me.

It was hard not to smile, and then it was hard not to laugh, while I was singing. I've played "Japanese Garden" hundreds of times, but this was so different. I could feel the audience's responsiveness to the Russian lyrics, then I could hear them laughing when I sang, "Относительно дополнительной сосновой шишки—" ("With respect to the additional pinecone—"). It must have been so bizarre to hear Russian lyrics written and sung by a non-native Russian speaker — especially the kind of lyrics I write. 

At the end of the concert, Vlad came on stage and whispered to me that he would speak to the audience and then, if it was okay with me, I would play one more song. I stood at the side of the stage as he talked, and I smiled, and I only sort of listened because I was in that strange fugue state of the performance. When it was time, I returned to the piano and played "A Person," and then, embarrassingly but hilariously, Vlad informed me that he had told them I was going to play "Japanese Garden" for a second time.

During this encore performance, people clapped along with the Russian section. After the show, there were so many people to meet and talk to, and every single one of them was so sweet. Throughout it all, I felt euphoric. Vlad and I agreed that it was, as he had hoped, a heartwarming show.

And then it was time to pack everything up; and then we were squeezing into a taxi; and then Sergey was carrying the keyboard up the flights of stairs to Liliya's flat; and then Liliya was cooking again, but this time for half a dozen people.

As Liliya graciously, inexplicably prepared food for everyone, Vlad and Evgeny (and Sergey, briefly) played several songs. I felt like I had been accepted into an elite underground singer-songwriter salon.

Vlad plays a song.

When Evgeny played «Молитва Франсуа Вийона» ("The Prayer of François Villon"), even I was able to sing a few words.

Дай же ты всем понемногу,
И не забудь про меня.
Дай же ты всем понемногу
И не забудь пpо меня...

With warm hearts, we said our goodbyes. I had only just met all these people, but it felt like a reunion. I had only just met them, and already it was time to give hugs and say goodbye.

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, using the tub as a sink, like Liliya and Vlad had explained to me. Then I crawled into my foldout sofa bed. I was exhausted, so exhausted that it was difficult to sleep.

A few short hours later, it was time to wake up. Thanks to Liliya, the eternal source of nourishment, I tried my first ever persimmon. Liliya called the taxi, and I realized with gratitude that she and Sergey were coming to the station to see me off. The taxi arrived, and the driver was like a character from a movie — my memory is too foggy for a physical description, but suffice it to say that when he opened the trunk of the car, he produced a gnarly stick to keep it propped open while I put my suitcase inside.

I wanted to stay here in this strange, fascinating place. I wanted to spend more time with these friendly, creative people; I wanted to hear all their songs. I wanted the taxi to turn around, or at least slow down. Instead, we arrived at the station too quickly, found my bus too quickly, and too quickly it took me and my warm, achy heart away from Kaliningrad.

 

 At Katarsis, before my show. (Vlad, me, Rita, Elisaveta.)

At Katarsis, before my show. (Vlad, me, Rita, Elisaveta.)

You can Gdańsk if you want to

(Because "When you get the choice to sit it out or Gdańsk... I hope you Gdańsk" was too long.)

December 4

When you're flying around Europe, and your frame of reference is the US, you quickly notice some differences. (And I can only speak to my experience in coach, on cheap flights.) For example, I often found that my assigned seat was occupied, and it was necessary to sit elsewhere. If you want a window seat, try to be near the front of the line to board the plane. If you happen to find yourself in an empty row, you can lie down and sleep across all the seats. (I never did this, and probably never would, because I'm self-conscious about taking up space.) Sometimes people stay in their assigned seats until the Fasten Seatbelt sign is off, at which point there is a great migration. When the plane lands, don't be surprised if the passengers around your burst into applause. But also don't be surprised if they don't. If you want to clap, but don't want to be the only one clapping, hold your applause and feel it out. Alternately, you could be the one to get things going.

Anyway.

My first view of Poland: grey, snowy Warsaw, from the plane.

"I know this grayness; I even used to love it, as part of the mood and weather with which one grew up here, and which sank into the bones with a comforting melancholy." - Eva Hoffman, Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe

In my little video clip, you can see about the extent of what I saw of Warsaw, other than the inside of the airport whizzing by me as I ran to catch my plane to Gdańsk.

I landed in Gdańsk, found the train platform, and donned my ushanka.

 Here I am wearing my ushanka on the train platform at the Gdańsk Airport, with some snow visible here and there behind me.

Here I am wearing my ushanka on the train platform at the Gdańsk Airport, with some snow visible here and there behind me.

I got this vegan ushanka from Hoodlamb because I figured it would be impossible to find a vegan one in Russia. (Once in Russia, I found out that only tourists and the police wear ushankas in the city, so I stuffed it in my suitcase and opted for a plain black tuque.)

In Gdańsk, my lovely hosts were Iza and her cousin Ola. Iza met me at the train station and guided me back to her flat, where I dropped off my things before heading out to see the sights.

 A view of Long Lane from Golden Gate, already in shadow on this short winter day. In the distance, Ratusz Głównego Miasta (Main Town Hall), home of the Gdańsk History Museum, is still enjoying some daylight.

A view of Long Lane from Golden Gate, already in shadow on this short winter day. In the distance, Ratusz Głównego Miasta (Main Town Hall), home of the Gdańsk History Museum, is still enjoying some daylight.

Gdańsk had a nice, cozy feel to it, as did the show that evening. Iza and Ola were such sweet hosts. There were about a dozen people, mostly from Couchsurfing, in attendance, and they were all so nice and interesting. Ola was really familiar with my music already, and she made some requests. I'll make sure to practice "Fall" before my next visit to Gdańsk! I'm very grateful to them for opening up their home for this event. After the show, Iza and Ola and Klaudiusz had an amazingly entertaining little dance party... I knew I needed to sleep, but when "Toxic" started playing I had to stay and watch.

Very, very early the next morning, Iza helped me get on my way to the station, and by no small miracle I found the bus that would take me to Kaliningrad. The friendly driver noticed how flustered I was and, smiling, said, "Spokojna."

Calm.

New(ish) year, new blog

Hello!

It's Stephan!

My friend Angelica suggested I create some sort of written account of my recent tour, so I will do that here, and hopefully I can do some little posts from the road in the future, for those of you who are interested in more structured narratives than I tend to provide on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

It's easy for me to get carried away when I'm writing. On my 2017 Japan Tour, I tried keeping a physical journal, but I wrote in so much detail that I filled 3/4 of the notebook with maybe a week of travel. And a lot of that was done weeks (and even months) afterwards, because the bullet trains were too fast to get any writing done on them.

On the 2017 Incredible Distance Tour, which took me to the UK, Europe, and Morocco, I didn't keep any kind of journal. I wrote a fair number of postcards, tried to do the social media thing, tried to keep up communication with Adam (my partner), tried to read The Left Hand of Darkness...

So, this will be as much a record for myself as for you.

November 28 - December 4

After picking up copies of the sneak peek demo version of the Incredible Distance EP from Atomic Disc in Salem, Oregon, I took Amtrak to Tacoma, Washington. The next day, I flew Norwegian Airlines from SeaTac to London Gatwick. The first Vegan Meal was disappointingly bland (if I wanted the Bland Meal I would have ordered it), and the second was Not Actually Vegan (a sandwich with dairy cheese on it). The first season of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel had been released that day, and I had downloaded it all to my iPad, so I watched a few episodes. It's great, though I think the attempts at diversity are pretty weak, especially when the writers have comedian Lenny Bruce evidently coining the [verb]ing while black expression.

 "Meanwhile, I went to college to learn Russian." I hear ya, Midge.

"Meanwhile, I went to college to learn Russian." I hear ya, Midge.

I landed in (or near) London and met up with my friend Jack on London Bridge. We walked around a bit and visited The White Cube, an art gallery where we saw Gilbert & George's The Beard Pictures and Their Fuckosophy.

 "Fuck fate"

"Fuck fate"

On our way to Sky Garden, it started snowing, and there were some flurries while we were up in the garden as well. The elevators were fast, the view was nice, the plants were real even when they looked fake.

The highlight of this first day was definitely the Phoenix Garden, which I mention in my song "Limits" ("A Phoenix Garden wren in a sudden igloo sticks to sticks!") but had only visited in my imagination. I didn't see a Phoenix Garden wren, but I did see a Phoenix Garden robin — my lifer European Robin.

 European Robin on an oak bench.

European Robin on an oak bench.

I wrote "Limits" after Jack's brief visit to Eugene, Oregon, in 2016, and it was this song broke a few years of songwriting silence for me. So it felt very fitting to start this tour in London, visiting Jack and the Phoenix Garden. (Additional birds added to my life list in London: Song Thrush, Eurasian Magpie, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Blackbird, Tufted Duck, European Goldfinch, Lesser Black-backed Gull.)

But my first show was actually in Southampton, so the next day I headed in that general direction, connecting with Rex on the way and enjoying a chilly, windy afternoon at Stonehenge. As we neared Stonehenge, I briefly glimpsed my first (and still my only) Red Kite, whose forked tail made them easy to identify at a glance. By the henge itself I saw my lifer Eurasian Jackdaw and Rook. I wondered (as I would wonder about birds all throughout Europe) if these individual birds' ancestors were hanging around in this exact spot in ancient times.

 Eurasian Jackdaw and sarsen stone.

Eurasian Jackdaw and sarsen stone.

Before delivering me to Southampton, Rex introduced me to Winchester Cathedral, where the Christmas Market was in full swing. The Cathedral itself was bathed in an eerie purple light, and the nearly full moon and partly cloudy night sky added to a feeling that was more Halloweeny than Christmasy. (It may just be that we don't see much of the sky in December in Oregon.) I was graciously given a more thorough tour of Winchester over the following days.

The next day, I had my show in Southampton, hosted by the lovely Angelika and Ricky (and their dog Dottie and bearded dragon Little Mei). Before the show, Angelika and Ricky played nature guides, escorting me around Lower Test River Saltmarsh (on the River Test) and New Forest National Park (where I was able to put some wellies to good use.) At the Saltmarsh, I added several species to my life list: Eurasian Bullfinch, Yellowhammer, Dunnock, Goldcrest, Eurasian Treecreeper, and Great Tit.

 So-called New Forest (newness questionable).

So-called New Forest (newness questionable).

My show was in the afternoon, and this is where it would really help me to blog as everything is happening, because there are names I want to mention but can't quite recall. I want to say thank you to the friend of Angelika and Ricky's who lent me a keyboard. Thank you, you!

There was a nice little gathering of adults and children and non-human animals who attended the show. Ricky made an abundance of tasty sandwiches, and after some hanging out, chatting, and snacking, everyone got comfy and the show began, as my shows generally do, with "I am not a stranger here".

Shows are generally a blur to me, so it's hard to say much about them. I played, I talked a little. People listened, people looked thoughtful, people said nice things afterwards and I felt grateful and lucky.

 Me at the keyboard before my show at Angelika and Ricky's house in Southampton. (Photo by Rex Duffy)

Me at the keyboard before my show at Angelika and Ricky's house in Southampton. (Photo by Rex Duffy)

I spent the next two nights in Winchester in the Armadilla, an Airbnb that I thought was one of a kind but I've only just realized is one of many such structures. (I was already familiar with Tiny Houses in general, but not tolypeutine ones.)

 The Armadilla, a highly sustainable armadillo-shaped dwelling.

The Armadilla, a highly sustainable armadillo-shaped dwelling.

While in Winchester, I saw the famous Cathedral inside and out, in daylight and at night. I traipsed all over the very old, very delicate tile floors in my clunky but stylish boots. I also saw the deathplace of Jane Austen.

At Winnall Moors, I added Eurasian Siskin, Common Chaffinch, and Eurasian Blue Tit to my life list. Along the River Itchen, I saw my first Redwing, European Greenfinch, Mistle Thrush, and Common Chiffchaff. I also had a momentary view of a Common Kingfisher (a species I had seen all too briefly in Japan as well). If you go birding in Winchester, I definitely recommend both Winnall Moors and the Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail. Both are great places to stroll.

 Mistle Thrush up on the housetop, quick quick quick.

Mistle Thrush up on the housetop, quick quick quick.

I more or less finished my stay in Winchester with a memorable sunset in the countryside, at memorably named Cheesefoot Head, while hundreds of Rooks swarmed in a nearby field.

At an ungodly hour on Monday, December 4, the eternally kind and generous Rex drove me to Heathrow for my flight to Gdańsk, Poland. And that's where I'll end for now!

- Stephan