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Nordic Adventure, Part 8: Puffins and Porpoise and Whales, Oh My!

While I was in Reykjavik, I took two separate boat trips.  The first was a one hour puffin-watching cruise.  I mentioned puffins in the previous post, because I ate some smoked puffin meat.

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I mentioned that the puffin meat tasted kind of fishy-  I assume it’s because they spend a lot of their life hanging out in the water, just bobbing on the currents.

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There were hundreds of them around.

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For scale, remember this:  The body of a puffin is roughly the size of a twelve ounce can of Coke.

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The puffins nest on small islands with no human inhabitants, all around the coastline of Iceland.  I actually wanted to go sky-fishing, which is how they’re caught, but that’s not really something tourists can easily do.  Sky-fishing involves going to one of the islands and snatching them out of the air with a giant net on a long pole.   I don’t want to hurt them, I just think it would be kind of fun to catch birds with a giant butterfly net and then let them go.  If you want to see sky-fishing in action, go to Youtube and search for “Gordon Ramsay Puffin.”  Be warned, however-  he kills, cooks, and eats the one he catches.

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One of the things I learned about puffins is this adorable factoid:  Baby puffins are called pufflings.  Sometimes the pufflings get confused and wind up in the streets of Reykjavik.  When this happens, people generally take them back to the shore and once there’s water, the birds figure out easily where to go.

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The second boat ride I took was a three hour whale-watching cruise.    There are several competing companies that do this, but I suspect they talk to each other, because my blue vessel was shadowed for the entire duration of the cruise by this red vessel.

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You may have noticed that many of the people in that picture are wearing coats that match the boat- that’s because they provide overalls you can wear if it’s too cold.  I didn’t bother with the coveralls because I was already pretty well layered up, but it was tempting because they’re really  fashionable.

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I really didn’t think we’d see anything, but I was happy to be proven wrong.  Our spotter called one type of dolphin that I didn’t actually see, and at one point, this minke whale.  The whale was pretty shy and didn’t hang out for more than a few minutes.

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The harbor porpoises, on the other hand, were not shy at all.  They were curious and playful.

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There was a pod of about seven or eight of them keeping time with our boat for a good portion of the cruise.

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Still, without the spotter, I’m not entirely certain I would have seen anything.  The reflection on the water makes it difficult to spot anything unless you’re at a pretty decent elevation, or unless they hang out on the surface a lot, like these little guys.

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Have you ever been whale-watching?  Did you spot anything?

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Nordic Adventure, Part 7: Reykjavik

From Copenhagen, it’s a reasonably short flight to the last stop in my trip through the Nordics:  Reykjavik, Iceland!

The geography in Iceland is really likenothing I’ve ever seen.  This is an island that has both volcanoes and earthquakes.  There are fields of volcanic rock, waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes.   Geothermal pools provide hot water for the island, and much of their power comes from the geothermal energy as well.

This is a field of volcanic rock, covered in a type of moss that the four legged folk of the island really like to munch on.

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I was in Iceland in the spring, so things were fairly green.

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One of the major tourist attractions in Iceland is a tour of the Golden Circle.  The first thing that most folks see on a Golden Circle tour is the rift valley in Þingvellir National Park.   Iceland sits on the border between two of the major tectonic plates-  the North American plate and the Eurasian plate.  The space where they meet has formed a valley with a lake in it.  This is the rift valley.

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The edge of the North American plate has some interesting rock formations- you can see these trenches that go in almost straight lines for miles and miles near the lake.

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The second stop on a Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls.”  This enormous waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland.  For a sense of scale, look at the rocky outcropping on the left side and the path leading to it along the left edge of the photograph.  You can see people getting close to the falls.

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There were three different vantage points to see the Falls.  This was the easiest one to get to.  There’s also the outcropping in the previous photo, and a path that goes down the face of the cliff I’m standing on here.  Lots and lots of stairs to get to that one.

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This is the view from the rocky outcropping I mentioned before.

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Across the street from the visitor center near Gullfoss, there was a small group of Icelandic horses hanging out near the fence.  There are places throughout the island where you can rent a horse.  They’re really quite sweet.  You can’t tell from the photo, but this one was using the barbed wire to scratch an itch.

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The third stop in a Golden Circle tour is the Haukadalur geothermal area, a hill containing the Great Geysir, the one for which all other geysers are named, another geyser named Strokkur, and twenty or thirty smaller geysers and thermal pools.

Here’s Little Strokkur, not to be confused with the big one.

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And Little Geysir.

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I didn’t catch a name for this thermal pool but the color was striking.  Also, the mist coming off of this pool had a strong sulphur smell, a little like rotting eggs.  Anyone who grew up with well water in South Florida will probably know the smell.  The hotel room sink in Reykjavik also had this smell-  the locals get used to it, I think.  It wasn’t unpleasant, just strong.

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This is Great Geysir.   Geysir doesn’t erupt much these days, although earthquakes can stimulate eruptions for a little while.

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Strokkur, on the other hand, goes off every five minutes or so.  It’s rather spectacular to see.

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I even managed to catch one of Strokkur’s eruptions on video.

So that’s the Golden Circle.   You’ll need at least half a day to see all of that.

Back in Reykjavik, you’ll see a number of very distinct structures.  This is Hallgrímskirkja.  This is the tallest church in Iceland, and so naturally, I had to climb it.

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From the observation deck at Hallgrímskirkja, this is what the main part of Reykjavik looks like.  I can actually see my hotel in this picture.  There’s a main street full of bars and restaurants on the right side of this picture, but you can’t really see where the road is clearly from this vantage point.

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Looking in the opposite direction, you can see the sphere of Perlan, or The Pearl, a structure built atop five hot water storage tanks.  There’s a viewing platform at Perlan also, and I’ll come back to that.

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This is the interior of Hallgrímskirkja.

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Now that I’ve shown you the church, I’d like to point out that Reykjavik has a rather massive ::ahem:: Phallological museum.  Translation: Penises!  Penises for everyone!   Regrettably, I didn’t take the time to go to the penis museum, but I’m sure it was just turgid with the learning.

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The problem with writing blog posts too long after the travel dates is that I don’t remember exactly why I took this photo, other than that it looks pretty cool.

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It’s nice to know that my knack for finding friendly kitties extends to Iceland too.

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This is Sólfar, or Sun Voyager, perhaps the most photographed sculpture in Iceland.  The sculpture, by Jón Gunnar Árnason, is made of stainless steel.   Unveiled in 1990, the artist wanted Sun Voyager to represent a ship of dreams, an “ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

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Every major city needs a great concert hall, and Reykjavik has the Harpa Concert Hall, home to the Icelandic Opera and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.  It also functions as a conference center.

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I mentioned the Perlan earlier-  I took the time to go out there and climb the dome.  It gave me a nice perspective of the city from the opposite side, looking back toward the sea.

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The downtown part of Reykjavik was pretty great.  While I was waiting for a tour that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post, I stopped at Icelandic Fish & Chips Organic Bistro to kill some time and get a snack.  I had been craving chocolate cake, and this really hit the spot-  delicious (and gluten free!) chocolate cake, perfectly moist and soft, paired with a nice cup of chamomile tea.

I would go back to Iceland just to have this cake again.  It was that good.

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There were several theme places in Reykjavik, including a Chuck Norris restaurant that I didn’t see until I was about to leave, and a few doors down from my hotel, the Lebowski Bar.  This place is fun and friendly and has really great burgers and shakes.

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There was also a gay bar called the Kiki Queer Bar that I would have checked out, except they only opened Thursday to Sunday nights, and I was in the city from Monday to Thursday.  The inset of the photo is a note that was left in the black panel next to the front door-  I was not the only one who wanted to check out Kiki.

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One of the things that people are curious about in Iceland is the food-  some people are keen to try Hákarl, or rotten shark meat.  I was not.  Hakarl is often described as one of the foulest tasting foods in existence.  Chef Anthony Bourdain described hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.  Some people try whale, horse, or puffin.    I didn’t have any interest in whale meat, and I could go on a rant about the hunting generated by tourism- only about 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat, but tourists do quite often.

While I wasn’t interested in fermented shark or whale, I was interested in trying puffin.  I would have preferred a nice puffin burger, but I could only find a few places that had puffin on the menu.   I chose Laekjarbrekka,  a restaurant on the main street with a really good TripAdvisor rating.   They had an “Icelandic Feast” on the menu that included shark, whale, horse, and puffin, but I didn’t go for that.  I had smoked puffin as an appetizer, and had a nice fresh fish for my main course.  I no longer remember the type of fish, but I can say that it was the best cooked plate of fish I’ve ever had in my life.    The picture below is puffin-  the entire bird has a body roughly the size of a can of Coke, so the amount of meat in a single bird isn’t very much.    The puffin meat tasted fishy, which makes some sense since the birds spend most of their lives on or near the ocean.

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I saw this while walking through the city.  I’m not sure what it’s all about, but I suspect it’s just art.

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Lastly, this is a picture taken out of the window of my hotel room at 1:15 AM.  Reykjavik is one of the furthest north places I’ve ever been, and it was amazing to see that even after sundown, it was still kind of light.  It looked like this when I went to sleep, and the sun came back up just a few hours later.

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Have you ever been to Reykjavik?  Have you ever tried Hakarl?

Functionally Stupid

http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/

All credit for the image goes to Malachi Rempen’s amazing comic about life abroad-  http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/

Please permit me to go on a brief navel-gazing expedition.   I have a singular frustration which has been building up and I’ve wanted to write about this for a while.

In the past seven days, three different people who know perfectly well that my German is terrible have switched to full Deutsch in the middle of a conversation and gone on for several sentences, looking at me the whole time as if I’m going to just intuit what they mean. It’s as if the part of their mind that knows that I won’t understand has gone on vacation.

It’s frustrating that I don’t understand- I know the basic vocabulary and grammar.  I understand more written German than spoken, but still not nearly enough.  After almost three years here, I really should be able to understand more.

I know that I am smart as hell. I know that I am competent. I know that I have an amazing grasp of some pretty sophisticated concepts and that I have an aptitude for trivia. I am, by no possible definition of the word, stupid.  Still, living here makes me feel like a perennial dunce.  In Deutschland, I can be verbally outpaced by a five year old.

It’s exhausting being in a place where I can’t handle simple governmental bureaucracy, or get a haircut without getting confused, or parse my junk mail without help.  It’s grinding me down.

I know quite a few Americans who live here, and most all of them just sort of fall right into the language.  They pick up other languages without a struggle.  That’s never been me.  Living for nearly three years in a place where I don’t have any degree of fluency has been a trying experience.  Living in a country where you don’t have fluency in the local language takes a toll on your self esteem.  Every day here is a challenge. Every day I feel more and more stupid.

I don’t really have a good closing thought for this post, or even a real point beyond just venting.    On Monday, I’ll pick up the Nordic Adventure posts again with Reykjavik, Iceland.  That’ll be fun.

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Nordic Adventure, Part 6: Copenhagen

The fourth city in my five-city romp through the Nordics was the capital of Denmark:  Copenhagen!

Copenhagen is full of fascinating things to see and do.   For example, directly opposite the main train station is Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world.  Opened in 1843, Tivoli is the second most popular seasonal theme park in the world, the most visited theme park in Scandinavia and the fourth most visited in Europe.

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Most of the rides are considerably more recent than the park’s opening in the 1800s.  For example, the red track here is The Demon, which only dates back ten years to 2004.  Some roller coaster enthusiasts posted a video of their ride if you’re curious.

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In the center of the city is the Rundetårn, or Round Tower, completed in 1642.

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The tower was built as an astronomical observatory at the top and a library partway up.  The path to the top is a helix, a sloped walk.  This was chosen over stairs because so that a horse and carriage could go to the top.  This allowed them to move books and sensitive scientific equipment up the tower easily.

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The center of the tower is completely hollow, and you can see all the way to the bottom.   A daring tourist can step right onto this thick observation glass.

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This is the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. It was founded in 1897 by Carl Jacobsen, the man who founded the Carlsberg beer brewery.  It’s an art museum which originally contained Jacobsen’s private collection.

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The museum was originally a sculpture museum, and sculpture remains the primary focus of the atrium and grounds.  This is Kai Nielsen’s sculpture, “Water Mother,” front and center in the Winter Garden.

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In front of the main stairway is a rather nifty statue of Neptune.

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…and this attractive fellow is in the gardens out back.

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Let’s get this out of the way right now- You’re going to see Segway riders in a bunch of these pictures, because I took another Segway tour when I was in Copenhagen.   The city of Copenhagen contains hundreds of miles worth of bicycle lanes, 14 miles of which are on the streets in the city.  Segways are allowed to use bicycle lanes in the city, so it’s an amazingly great way to cover a lot of ground.  Plus they’re really fun.

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I can’t really remember why I took a picture of this wall, but it sure is a happy wall, wouldn’t you say?

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This square is called Gammeltorv.  That round thing is a fountain but I guess it was still covered from the winter.  I had a very enjoyable traditional Danish meal at a restaurant in this plaza.

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Copenhagen was nine days into my travels, and I needed to do some laundry.  I found a marvelous place called The Laundromat Cafe, which has locations in Denmark and Reykjavik Iceland.  The Laundromat Cafe is exactly what it sounds like-  a nice place to get a snack or a beer while you’re laundry is running in the handy coin-operated wash machines.  I did a load of laundry, and had a delicious pastry.  The girl behind the counter said this was a traditional Danish pastry, but I never caught the name of it.  I can say that it looks and tastes like a strawberry  Pop-Tart, only more delicious.

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Non-sequitur time!  The Metro in Copenhagen has large clear windows on the front and back of each car, and if you take video from inside, it looks a little bit like the opening credits to Doctor Who.  Behold!

Amagertorv is a popular meeting place in Copenhagen because the Stork Fountain is a pretty well known and easy to find landmark.

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This building used to be Nikolaj Church, but now Nikolaj Kunsthal is a contemporary art center.  They do their best to keep the confusion down, by way of this handy hanging banner on the front of the building.

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Frederik’s Church is often referred to as the Marble Church.  It’s due west of Amalienborg Palace.  This is the largest church dome in Scandinavia, and it was probably modeled after the Basilica in Vatican City.

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This is the courtyard at Amalienborg Palace.  Amalienborg consists of four identical palace buildings in an octagonal courtyard.

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You can tell it’s a Palace because there are guards with fuzzy hats.  It’s a royal thing.

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Den lille havfrue, or The Little Mermaid, is a fairly famous bronze sculpture by Edvard Eriksen which sits on a rock by the waterside.  The head of the statue is modeled after ballerina Ellen Price, but Price didn’t agree to model in the nude, so the body is modeled after the sculptor’s wife, Eline.  The statue is a frequent target for vandalism, and tourists climb onto the rock with her quite often for photographs.  In fact, the solitude displayed in this picture is very much an illusion, as you’ll see in the next photo.

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Later in the day, I took a boat tour which passed the Little Mermaid from the water.  This view gives you a much more accurate idea of what it’s like by the Mermaid’s rock.

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The Gefion Fountain, near the Little Mermaid, is the biggest monument in Copenhagen.  It was created for Carlsberg Brewery’s 50th birthday.  The legend of Gefion was told to me three different times while I was in Copenhagen, and it goes roughly as follows:

The Swedish king Gylfe offered Gefion as much of Sweden as she could plough in one day and one night.To get the most out of it, Gefion turned her four sons into big strong oxen and harnessed them to a plough.   And then they ploughed. And they ploughed. All day and all night. So deep in the ground, that when the time expired, Gefion could lift up the land and drop it into the sea between Sweden and Funen Island in Denmark.  And that’s how the beautiful and historic Zealand Island - the biggest island in Denmark – came to be.

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Near the Little Mermaid is an old well preserved star-shaped fortress called Kastellet.  This is one tiny corner of it.

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Apparently, this bridge is the source of considerable embarassment for the Danes-   the construction was begun from both sides, and when they got near the middle, they realized that the two sides did not actually line up.  The construction company has since gone out of business and they’re left with an incomplete non-connecting bridge.

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The spire on the left here, with the four entwined dragons, is actually the Stock Exchange. This is very misleading, Copenhagen!

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This is the Royal Library in Copenhagen.  The structure in the front is referred to as the Black Diamond, and the part in the back is the original Library building.

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The Royal Library Garden exists behind the structures in the previous photo-  it’s a really quiet and pleasant place in the middle of the city.

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This is Christiansborg Palace, the seat of Danish Parliament.

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Anchored in the harbor is the Royal Yacht Dannebrog.  Dannebrog serves as the official and private residence for the Royal Couple and other members of the Royal Family when they are on official visits overseas or on summer cruises in home waters.

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When the royals are waiting to be picked up by the boat, or when they’re waiting for state visitors, they wait in Toldboden.  They use the gazebo-like building on the left, with the crown on its roof.  Non-royals are allowed to wait in the other structure.

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My visit was just after the Eurovision Song Contest was hosted in Copenhagen.  It was so recent to my visit that they hadn’t even taken down the banner on the giant music hall yet.

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I don’t have much to say about the Opera House.

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Frederik’s Church again, this time from the water.

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The neat looking spiral spire is Christianshavn, the Church of Our Savior.  The circular stairs to climb the tower are on the outside of the building.  I didn’t climb this one, regrettably, but it looks really neat!

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Copenhagen’s City Hall Square.

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Alongside of the Copenhagen City Hall is a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, author of faery-tales such as The Little Mermaid and Frozen…er, I mean The Snow Queen.

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Have you ever been to Copenhagen?

Schlaaaaaaaaand!

While I’m not typically one for sports, televised or otherwise, I can’t help but get into the World Cup here.

I first saw the magnificent spectacle that is International football (soccer for you Americans) championships two years ago, during the UEFA European Football Championship.  When I wrote about that series, I had just seen a Holland match while in Holland, and the Orange was everywhere.

I also noticed then, as now, that the Championships are the one time that you really see German patriotism.  Championships are the time that German flags go onto people’s cars and get displayed on houses.  From what my German friends tell me, this only started around the 2006 championships- before that it was almost unheard of to have this level of patriotism in Germany, ever since that whole World War II incident back in the 1940s.

I’ve been really enjoying the games this year; especially this week’s massive 7-1 victory over Brazil’s team.

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If you didn’t see the Brazil-Germany match, this animation pretty much sums up the game.

With that victory, Germany is going to the final match of the World Cup.  On Sunday night, they’ll be playing Argentina for the whole enchilada.  I was really hoping it would be the Netherlands…

I’m pretty stoked about the whole thing, and so are my countrymen-  after Germany’s last victory, the Empire State Building in New York City  looked like this:

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Have you been watching the World Cup?  Who do you root for?