Some Dutch phrases I've been picking up:
Hoe heet het?
So I was on holiday in the mountains bordering Germany and the Czech Republic. Walking around, it was actually a bit odd to be simply walking between Germany and the Czech Republic simply by pootling down a street - i.e. making good use of the Schengen free-movement area that's been one focal point of the migration and refugee news this year. So that was on my mind a bit. (And no I didn't spot any migrants!)
Then in the woods, I saw something unexpected. - A grid of little concrete pyramids, each about a metre high. Just sitting there, not part of a building, or an art installation, or anything, as far as I could tell. Looking fairly old and unkempt. An area of about 15 by 20 metres, weird.
I didn't take a picture, so here's an artist's impression:
Eventually I saw there was a little notice by the side, explaining that these were a leftover part of the tank-trap strip that defended the Iron Curtain a few years ago. Thick forest provided a lot of the border defence against tanks - but in the channels between forests, these tank traps would be built so that tanks would scupper themselves on the pyramids. Then the guards watching from the nearby towers could do the rest.
Here's a picture I found online, of some similar leftover pyramids in the Czech Republic border area:
(Photo is by Marcin Szala via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)
There were a couple of photos included, of tests where they drove tanks on top of the pyramids. The thought of it, in this peaceful forest. An "enemy" (or any) tank coming hurling down the way, aiming for the border, crashing over the landscape, through fences etc. This is what borders in Europe used to be like. Within my lifetime. These are the eventualities that planners had in mind.
It puts in perspective how we currently talk about borders, with the EU and Schengen and Brexit. I presume that Germans who remember their country before unification already have this perspective...? But as a mainland Brit, it's not like that.
(I know it's also how some borders are right now. For example between Israel and Palestine. Maybe we should all go and experience the physicality of those things first hand.)
Politically, the world is quite unstable right now, and it's really unclear how the multiple crises of 2016 will play out. Whatever happens, the future will not be exactly the same as the past. But when you bump up against our very recent history (the Iron Curtain) in physical form it really brings it home, for someone who never experienced a war - never really even felt the brunt of the troubles in Ireland, though I remember the Manchester Arndale bombing - that the peace and stability that happens (?) to coincide with the EU era is not something to be taken cheaply.
Further reading: I found this nice travelogue from someone who travelled along exploring the Iron Curtain etc, while I was looking for the photo.
It doesn't surprose me that the trees still grow in Manhattan. After all they're captives. They still grow, because life always tries to grow.
What amazes me is the birds cheeping away. You can fly! You must have visited quieter, calmer places? Here in the city no-one can hear you sing. The machinations of the city drown everything out beyond a couple of metres - the cars, the subway, the helicopters. Not a place for easy singing.
Do you like it here? Do you have a good territory? All this human noise, is it a curse or an irrelevance? Or maybe, is it all worth it for the central park?
Earlier this summer we were in Galway, Ireland. There's lots of good countryside for walking around in, and as I blogged before there's nice beer and food too. it was May/June so there were plenty of birds out singing too - here are some of the ones I noticed:
We did a little tour to Omey Island, a lovely, still little tidal island. It was a clear day and in the blue sky there was a tiny pinprick, a skylark flying right up high as they do, but singing so loudly and with such a clear complex song - it's really impressive to hear when you're somewhere quiet and still and the bird is so far away as to be invisible. I've been studying skylark song a bit so I've listened to plenty of recordings, but this is the way to hear it.
A very different sound was the caw of the jackdaw - in Galway City we walked to the ruined Menlo Castle, which was home to dozens of jackdaws. It's not a very accessible ruin but if you can find it, it's a nice spot. Here's a photo:
We also heard chaffinches singing all around the place. I didn't ever see one (hence the photo I've used is from Wikipedia - photo by Andreas Trepte), but the distinctive call, ending with a little "oowOOoo", was really noticeable. Having come home and listened to recordings online, I think the whoopy "oowOOoo" must be specific to Irish chaffinches, since none of the recordings have quite that wolf-whistley ending.
Coole Park was a nice place to walk. I'd normally go for the more untamed kind of walks but this was a great little nature reserve with various trails, woods and a very scenic lake. The woods were full of chaffinches and many other birds such as the chiff-chaff with its distinctive three-note chink-chink song.
Slightly outside County Galway was Adare. The village itself was kinda boring, to be honest, but we walked into the priory and were surprised when swifts darted past us in the corridors. They were amazingly fast little things (I tried lots of times to get a photo and failed every time) fluttering in and out of the cloisters. Also, for forest walks Curraghchase Forest Park is just near Adare Village and is great.
There are those who say the best time to visit Helsinki "is in summer, when Finns peel off their overcoats and flock to outdoor bars and cafes to enjoy the sunshine", but frankly they're wrong. Helsinki in the winter snow is beautiful, from the ferry crunching through ice floes on its way to the island of Suomenlinna, to the silently snow-covered bay, the frozen river and silver birches, silver birching just like they do in the summer.
And unlike the UK (where snow is a surprise) the Finns get a lot of snow every year so they know how to deal with it: they shovel it out of the way and get on with things, so they're not brought to a standstill. Don't get me wrong, I like the standstill days when the whole nation can do nothing except have snowball fights! But it would take a lot of snowball fights to use this lot up, it's deep and it's everywhere.
I went out onto the frozen river, covered with ice and a thick layer of snow on top. People had been on the river - there were a couple of holes for diving in, and a snowman... but still, a frozen river in the middle of the city is a suddenly peaceful place.
And the aforementioned ferry. Definitely better in the winter. In the summer it's a pleasant boat ride, fine, but in the winter it crunches through ice, churning strangely-shaped lumps of ice into even stranger shapes, shuddering as it pushes its way through. There are ducks sitting on some of the chunks of ice - surprisingly unruffled by the ferry bearing down on them, barely bothering to move out of the way.