Category Archives: resturaunts

Cultural Observations in Stockholm

 

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Setting out to observe a 3 P.M. sunset, in all its glory, is actually significantly more challenging than one would ever expect. Spending four days in Stockholm, I came to the realization that anywhere one would go in November or December where the sun sets this early is likely to be quite cloudy. While the sun did slip below the horizon right around 3, and the sky became pitch black before 4, each afternoon the sky pretty much appeared like this.

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There was no observation of the sun dipping below the horizon at 3 P.M., just a gray day fading gradually into nighttime.

Not only did 4 P.M. feel different here than anywhere I had ever lived, so did 8 P.M. Rather than feeling like the time the night was just beginning, when people were prepping up for their evening activities, getting ready, texting friends, etc., it felt like a lot later. I am not sure if this was 100% due to the fact that it had already been dark over four hours, or if it is due to cultural differences (when people leave work, etc.). However, at 8 P.M., it definitely felt like the “night”, whatever that entails, had been going on for some time and was approaching maturity.

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Stockholm is a city that parties pretty hard on Friday and Saturday evenings. Both evenings, in the area in and around the city center, including the areas around Central Station, and the Islands of Gamla Stan and Södermalm, there were plenty of people who were already quite intoxicated by 8 or 9 in the evening.

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This is one of several cultural observations I made while in Stockholm.

Of course there are ways to learn about the culture of a country or a region from afar. Travel books and other essays provide convenient cultural guides to places. Popular culture, music, movies, shows and such, also give people from afar a window into the culture of a place. However, I do notice time and time again, that there is no real substitute for actually going to a place and experiencing it for oneself.

For example, one of the things I noticed about Stockholm, the entire time there, was that people walk fast. It’s almost like the way it is in New York, and other large cities.

This is a prefect example of something needed to be experienced in person. While it is possible for someone to write, in a cultural guide or video, that people walk fast in a certain city, what that means can only be truly understood when experienced. The same can be said for New York.

 

Also, with the exception of New York, a city that seems to take pride in its high paced walking, it is easy to imagine a quick reference cultural guide which may focus on things like tipping or train etiquette, to not mention something like this. After all, did I really need to know how fast people in Stockholm walk prior to coming here?

I benefited more from reading about how Scandinavians dress. The casual sneakers, jeans and sweaters I wore all week did not stand out.

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In fact, I may have fit in too well. Despite the fact that people here are mostly fluent in English, most addressed me in Sweedish before I had to ask them to speak English to me.

Food is a significant component of any cultural experience. There is a reason why food makes a natural topic for travel shows. I couldn’t picture actually trying to experience the culture of a given place without trying the local food. I made sure I got the full Sweedish food experience, including the Skagenröra (shrimp salad), salmon, and various other fish dishes (Stockholm is a bunch of islands after all). However, I was surprised at how good their grilled sandwiches were. Specifically, many places throughout Stockholm serve various types of grilled sandwiches, all with some kind of cheese. Many of these sandwich did not include fish or seafood. Some were even vegetarian. They do an excellent job of melting the cheese on the rye bread, and this serves as a great lunch option for various types of people (as in, not everyone eats meat, seafood, etc.).

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As an American, traveling abroad to places like this, it is hard for me not to feel at least a little bit guilty. American culture is harder to escape than I ever realized. Stockholm does have fast food as well. Most of it comes in the form of stands, similar to the hot dog stands found on the streets of New York. Given that most of the food in Stockholm is pretty expensive, it is almost necessary to have a couple of meals at one of those stands on any multi-day trip here, so as not to bust a budget. This was, however, the only place I encountered someone who did not speak English.

I also saw McDonalds and Burger King all over town. However, these establishments are at least somewhat different abroad than they are in the United States.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment was that I was unable to escape the tradition known as “Black Friday”. I was hoping, by virtue of not being in America, where thanksgiving is not a holiday, I would also not experience Black Friday. Well, apparently people do that here too. Maybe they don’t in less touristy parts of a country like Sweden. Maybe I needed to go somewhere with less tourists, and, also less people who speak English, to experience the actual culture of Sweden.

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How much can anyone get to know about the culture of another country by visiting for just a short time? And not venturing outside of the City? I can see how a tourist can come to believe they have learned quite a bit about the culture of Sweden, or any place they chose to visit, by making an set of observations like these.

To me, my set of observations almost feels like how someone from abroad would judge the United States by simply spending several days in New York, our biggest city. The rest of the country i likely significantly different, in terms of pace of life, and how much they embrace ideas like Black Friday. However, just like the foreign tourist in New York, I did experience some things different from what I usually experience at home.

Barbecue and Beer in Kansas City

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Kansas City is one of several places in America known for their barbecue.  Recently, Travel and Leisure magazine ranked it America’s best city for barbecue.  In other rankings, the city almost always places in the top 3-5.  While barbecue is sometimes the subject of fierce debate, Kansas City has a distinct barbecue style that appears to always be part of the discussion.  Regardless of how any specific barbecue fan feels about Kansas City’s sweet, savory, and saucy barbecue style, it has certainly earned significance in culinary circles, and it certainly has its fans.

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I came to Kansas City with only one food agenda… I wanted barbecue.  I did not bring up any specific places or dishes.  I just knew I wanted barbecue.  I’d leave the rest up to the locals.

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The first place I found myself was a place called Joe’s.  I was already encouraged by the name.  For some reason it feels like the restaurants with the best local food in the United States are named just someone’s first name (examples [1][2][3]).  I wonder if this is the same in other countries.

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We waited in line for close to an hour to eat at Joe’s.  This may be partially due to the fact that it was Memorial Day Weekend.  But, I cannot imagine that this line is too much shorter on any other Saturday in the summer.

Without even making the specific request, I found myself at one of Anthony Bourdain’s 13 places to eat before you die.

One can clearly see that this is the kind of place that values their sauces, and a variety of sauces.  This contrasts the barbecue style of Kansas City with some other places, where I was told there is greater emphasis on the meat itself, how it’s cooked and how it’s spiced.

The portion sizes ended up being somewhat deceptive.  I ordered the rib dinner, which included a half a slab of ribs, Texas Toast, and a side.  It did not look like a lot of food, but I found myself fuller than I had felt in quite some time!

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The next day we went to a barbecue establishment with a different feel.  Whereas Joe’s is actually in a gas station, and in Kansas, B-B’s is in Missouri, and feels more like what most barbecue places I’ve been at feel like.  The walls are more densely decorated than an Applebees, and plastic red and white table cloth covers the tables.

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Side note:  While technically, Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri are two different municipalities, they don’t feel too different.  If it weren’t for the highway signs, or the road named Stateline Rd. I would probably be unaware that I am entering a new state.

As if traveling food shows were somehow my destiny for the weekend, B-B’s Bar-B-Q was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners Drive Ins and Dives.

It was another phenomenal meal, but once again, I overate.

In addition to eating more than I typically do, I drank after both meals, much of it being in the form of beer.  Beer, of course, is one of the most filling forms of alcohol.  So, while my tastebuds enjoyed this entire experience (Boulevard Brewing makes some excellent beer), my body was not happy.  I came away from this weekend not knowing how people here are able to eat and drink this way on a regular basis.

Despite this, it was still an amazing experience, and I got to see other things that Kansas City has to offer, including their downtown and historic Power & Light district (there has to be a reason for this, but I did not bother to look it up).

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One thing that plagues the modern world, and particularly my generation, is mental exhaustion.  Our minds are exhausted from the information overload which often results in analysis paralysis, which becomes extremely inefficient and exhausting.  When planning activities, we often give ourselves the following choices:

First is to select an activity that is familiar.  One that has already been done, and we are familiar with.  With this, we get a good experience without exhausting our minds planning.  However, there is no expanding our horizons.  Choosing all of our activities in this manner will inevitably lead to a rut.

The second is to do extensive research, spending hours on Yelp, Tripadvisor, and similar sites.  This, will usually ensure a good experience, but at the expense of exhausting research and planning.

The other option is to just wing it, making quick selections based on gut instincts.  This minimizes the exhaustion in selecting activities.  However, it can often lead to sub-par experiences.  I used to love to eat at randomly selected restaurants in the central business districts of small towns.  This practice lead to some unexpectedly amazing experiences.  But, there were quite a few disappointments as well.

My experience in Kansas City provided me with yet another reason community and trust are so valuable in our society.  By knowing people who are knowledgable on the subject of barbecue, I found myself at two truly great barbecue places without having to spend time researching places.  I relied on the knowledge of others.  This is something I hope we all can do more often as we seek out new places and experiences.

Day 6: The Finale

The last day of a long bike ride is always a strange day.  Not that any of the previous five days were similar to the others, but this day was especially different.  As is the case with many journeys, on the last day two things happen.

First, the specifics, the details such as route decisions, stop locations, timing, daily milage and the like all sort of gradually drift out of my mind.  In its place come grander thoughts about the trip as a whole, the accomplishments, the disappointments, the lessons learned, and everything else that has been going through my mind.

The second thing that happens is reality starts to set in.  For six days, July 5th, the day I would go back to work, and return to my “normal life”, may as well not have existed.  It did not cross my mind once.  It’s like my mind suddenly re-realized that this day was coming and that, in less than 24 hours I’d be on a plane heading home, and within 48 hours I’d be back to regular old work.

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Another thing that made this day different than the first five days is that we had two additional riders join us.  Riding with a group, and riding significantly less miles (67 today as opposed to over 100 most other days) made the ride take on a significantly different feel.

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We entered Maine only about seven miles into the ride.  I guess the previous day I pretty much rode across the entire state of New Hampshire.  And, I got my sign!  The one I had been hoping for the last two times (last two days) I crossed a state line.

The first part of the ride was nice, with a wide shoulder along state highway 113, following the Saco River.  After riding on a few back roads, and a little bit of time on a trail that was half paved and half rocky, we found ourselves headed into the Portland area.  The roads got significantly busier.  In fact, these were the busiest roads I had ridden on for the entire trip.  In some parts of the route, the shoulders all but disappeared, making these the kinds of roads I would not normally chose to ride on.

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We rode through the surprisingly hilly downtown area of Portland, and after the final seven miles along state highway 77, arrived, in the early afternoon, at our final destination for the trip, Cape Elizabeth.

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When we arrived at the Atlantic Coast, at Two Lights State Park, the day started to get emotional.

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This was, by far, the biggest bike trip I had ever been on, and may still prove to be my life’s longest bicycle journey.  But, for Clay, it was the culmination of a three year long effort to bike across the country.  In 2014, he biked from Denver to Chicago.  Last summer, from the Oregon Coast to Denver.  This year, from Chicago to Maine.  In three segments, he biked across the country.  Many members of his family made the journey to Maine to see him triumphantly enter the Atlantic Ocean, having biked across the continent, and, as a side note, also basically proven that you do not have to be some incredibly rich or extremely lucky person to do so.  He did it all while holding the same steady job!

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Of course, it is easier to be emotional when exhausted, and this picture sums up exactly how I felt the first fifteen minutes after completing the ride.  It was an odd combination of emotions that came over me.  Most of them were good, and most importantly, I felt gratitude for being able to play a small part in this whole mission by joining Clay, for three days last year in Montana and Wyoming, and for six this year.

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In the afternoon I got the meal I knew I had wanted upon completion of my ride; Lobster.  I love lobster, but I live in Denver.  When in Maine, well, really there was no other logical choice.  In fact, when biking over the last hill of the day, despite being tired, I actually increased my speed and simply yelled, “this is the last hill in the way between me and lobster”!

We ate at a place called the Lobster Shack Restaurant, which, on that day, had a 40 minute wait for service, as it is a popular destination where patrons can eat while overlooking the Ocean!

It got even more emotional after that.  That evening my main goal was to hang out with my friends, Clay and Liz, as much as possible.  They are in fact, leaving for a year long adventure, to go out and see many other parts of the world!  These adventures will be catalogued on their WordPress site.  I knew I would likely not see them for a while.

I also could not help but think about all of the things this bike journey taught me, whether it be specifically from the experience, or things that ran through my mind over the course of the long hours I spent on my bike.

Over the course of the week, I saw kindness everywhere I went.  Clay was raising money for charity.  His family volunteered to help with the ride.  Many of the people we met along the way were friendly.  I realized that, despite the amount of physical pain I put myself through, I felt happy the entire time, significantly happier than under normal circumstances.  Maybe the whole world would be happier if we all acted this way towards one another.  The most I can do, going forward, is strive to be the kind of person that gives more than I take, and do my part.

Having experienced being on mile 27 of a 100+ mile day multiple times reminded me not to become too obsessed with the destination.  This ride was about more than me laying on a beach in Maine and then eating lobster.  It was all of the places I saw while traveling from Niagara Falls across Upstate New York, through the Adirondacks and then Northern New England.  The rest of my life is not exactly where I hope it will end up at this point in time, but I can be much better off if I learn to obsess less over the destination and enjoy the journey, as I did this week.

The social media era has turned us all into avatars.  By that I mean we all have some kind of image of ourselves that we present to others, based on who we think they want us to be.  This week, I simply couldn’t continue to be my avatar.  On trips like this, our concerns shift, from the concerns of urban 21st century American life, such as getting a promotion or getting likes on social media, to more basic concerns, for food, water, and shelter.  I couldn’t put on a show for others, but I got by, and even thrived.  The others on the trip seemed to enjoy having me around.  So, I need to stop trying to be the person I think others want me to be.

Also, on the flight to Buffalo-Niagara, I was reading a book called The Happiness Project, about a woman who undertakes various initiatives aimed at improving life satisfaction and reports on the results.  She introduced me to the concept of “fog happiness”.  This is when the happiness related to an activity is not necessarily concentrated at the time of the activity itself, but spread out over a longer time period, both before and after the actual activitiy.  Once I determined I was going to make this bike trip, for the first time in my life, I thought of myself as a legitimate bike tourist.  For the first time, I felt the right to interject in a conversation about bike touring, and have legitimate opinions.  Essentially, I had added something to my list of activities and enriched my life.  We all should be more thoughtful when choosing activities, and, specifically avoid missing out on opportunities to create more of this “fog happiness”.

Obviously, anytime anyone completes an activity that requires a great amount of physical exertion, it is a reminder of how rewarding it can be to overcome fatigue.  This lesson applies to other areas of life too, but a journey like this can often be the best reminder that some of the most challenging tasks are the ones with the greatest reward.

Personally speaking, the most important lesson I have taken from this ride relates to something I have struggled with for nearly my entire life.  I seek significance in life.  I want to do things that matter and feel like I matter to others.  While with most of it my intensions are good, there is a dark side.  At times, when I feel insignificant and powerless, I succumb to anger, depression and other negative emotions.

This week, while a significant ride, and a series of significant experiences and accomplishments for myself, I was not the center of it all.  As previously mentioned, it was Clay’s ride.  He rode longer, harder, and raised money for charity.  Yet, I did not feel insignificant, as I have a tendency to feel in many day-to-day activities.  I realized, and this is important, that: You Don’t Have to be the Center of Attention to Matter.  I cannot stress this, to others but most importantly to myself, enough!

As I flew home, I drifted off to sleep, as Bon Jovi’s inspirational 2000 song Save The World played on my headphones.  Flying through moderate turbulence, I felt the plane gently shift, both upwards and downwards.  Running through my head, was an image of myself, from above, pedaling over hills, through the woods.  Nothing else was happening, I was just pedaling.

The New Place in Town

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When we think of “travel”, we usually think of the process of someone physically transporting themselves to another location, and, through that travel, experiencing something different from what they typically experience in their home towns.  And, it is that experience that I typically write about on this blog.  But, travel is actually a two way street.  Sometimes, the experiences of another place comes to us in our hometowns.  If it weren’t for this second form of travel, us Americans would not know about many cultural institutions near and dear to us, like burritos, yoga, sushi, or reggae music.

With the level of mobility in and out of, as well as within the United States of America, our culture ends up being in a constant state of flux.  Case in point, I remember when I was 12 years old going out for Thai food for this first time in my life, and thinking it was strange and exotic.  Nowadays, one can find Thai restaurants everywhere.  It’s become just as standard as pizza, another result of experiences of other lands coming to us, in our diet.

I must admit that last year, I had no idea what Detroit Style Pizza was.  In fact, I had no idea that Detroit even had a style of pizza.  To be fair though, having grown up partially in New York and partially in Chicago, two large cities known for their pizza, it had never really occurred to me that any place other than those two had a style of pizza.  By the time I had reached college, I had pretty much, in my head, categorized all pizza into three different categories; New York style thin crust pizza, Chicago’s deep dish pizza, and everything else, with Papa Johns typically taking the title for the least offensive member of this category (in my head).

But, since then, I had learned that Saint Louis, Colorado, and New Haven, Connecticut, all also have their own style of pizza.  So, when my friend told me about his upcoming business venture, opening up a restaurant serving Detroit style pizza, the concept did not sound completely foreign to me.  And, it helped that he did a really good job of describing it to me.  Through some research on my own, I later learned that Detroit style pizza has been around since the 1940s.  Yet, Denver, like everywhere else, appears to have suddenly become aware of this pizza style within the last couple of years.

Blue Pan Pizza opened 10 days ago in the West Highland neighborhood of Denver, one of Denver’s trendier neighborhoods.  It is a growing neighborhood in a growing city, with a lot going on.  It also appears to be a popular place for young families.  Both at Blue Pan, and at other nearby bars, I noticed a lot of babies and small children in the area.  So, I guess it is a good thing that the pizza turned out to be good, thus giving me no reason to swear in front of the children in the restaurant.

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As a general rule, I try the best I can to go “all in” when trying something new, and get the authentic experience.  So, while Blue Pan also offers standard Italian, and thin crust pizzas, I ordered the authentic Detroit style, as recommended by my friend, and restaurant co-owner Giles Flanagin.  One of the pizza styles is actually called “the 313” which appeals to my love of area codes (I celebrate “Area Code Day” every year).  The other pizza I ordered was called the “Brooklyn Bridge”.

I ended up really enjoying the pizza, as did the rest of my party.  Two other places in Denver offer Detroit style pizza.  I have yet to try the other two, so I have no means of direct comparison.  However, Giles had mentioned to me the importance they place on the quality of their ingredients, which I believe is why I ended up enjoying the pizza.

More than having a good meal, and being exposed to a completely new kind of food, I found myself just genuinely feeling happy that evening.  I was happy for my friend.  I was happy for my city.  I was happy for the neighborhood.  Ultimately, I was happy to have seen someone take an idea, something that starts out as just a bunch of words and images inside their head, and turn it into a reality.  It was right there in front of me, and completely real and completely successful.  Wow!

And, amazingly, although I desire more than anything in the world to be able to create an enterprise of my own, I did not even feel any envy.  Everyone is better off, and one person successfully executing an idea does not preclude another from doing so with a different idea.  In fact, seeing that it can be done should provide hope to all Americans who one day hope to have an impact on the world beyond just doing work and keeping a job.

Who knows what the future holds for Blue Pan, and the entire Detroit Style pizza industry.  American culture is in constant flux.  Some new entries to our mainstream culture stick permanently, while others die off.  In the 1990s, the cultural experience of Seattle’s coffee drinking scene traveled to the rest of the country.  It stayed.  A few years later, the southern cultural experience of Krisy Kreme donuts also came to us.  It left.  Will Detroit style pizza stay with us?  Only time will tell.  But, it appears to be off to a good start.