An Economic History of Luxembourg

This weekend, I decided to check off my list one of those tiny little countries that one rarely has a reason to pass through. While I’m only a four hour journey from Luxembourg, I figured that this might be my last reasonable chance. It’s also convenient because the Ardennes forest is the nearest place for me to find something that resembles a mountain and low population density.

I took off Friday for a three-day weekend, took a bus from Brussels to Luxembourg City, and then had a bit of an adventure with the public bus system to get out to a little town called Mullerthal, where I met up with one leg of a hiking route around the northeast of the little country. I spent a sleepless night in the dense forest and spent the next morning exploring the capital where I had started. The trip had some real highlights that I’ll get to eventually, but they’ll need some context.

For now, I’m going to continue my history kick and share a bit about this tiny country that most of you probably couldn’t place on a map (indeed, many world maps don’t even have enough resolution for it).

That’s actually a good place to start. Where is Luxembourg?

Well, I live in Belgium, and you know that it’s close to me, so it probably borders Belgium.

Indeed, it does, but can you even put Belgium on this map?

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Did you find it? Still struggling? It’s a small country. I’ll zoom in a bit.

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Ok, now you can see it. And even tiny Luxembourg made the cut!

If you’re still struggling, here’s the answer.

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At about 1,000 square miles, Luxembourg is a cutout at the junction of France, Belgium, and Germany.

But don’t let its size fool you. Both the World Bank and IMF have estimated Luxembourg to be the wealthiest country in the world (per capita; the UN disagrees, and I think I know why), and I can attest that it looks like it. Luxembourg city is so well maintained and so full of fancy cars, it’s actually a bit weird. This was the second six-figure car I saw in the first 20 minutes of walking through the city. Most of the others are new luxury cars.

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How did tiny little Luxembourg get so rich?

It’s actually not as complicated of a story as one might think, and it actually has a lot to do with its tiny geography.

Luxembourg has actually been around for about a thousand years. ‘Lucilinburhuc’ (literally translating to ‘small castle’) was a castle which became the centrepiece of what would become the County of Luxembourg over the 11th-13th centuries. The aristocracy of Luxembourg led successful armies and expanded their reach during this time. They were so successful that the house of Luxembourg even led the Holy Roman Empire during the 14th and 15th centuries. In the mid-15th century, neglect by the nobles who had gotten too comfy in their foreign roles allowed the Burgundians to conquer Luxembourg. Over the next four centuries, the area would change hands several times between the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Austrians, and the Prussians.

In 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon and liberation of his conquered lands, Luxembourg became a Grand Duchy, but it was divided. The Netherlands (more specifically King William I) was awarded the western provinces of Luxembourg. The eastern provinces became part of the new German Confederation. Most of the area makes up modern-day Luxembourg. Some of the eastern areas are now in Germany, and some came under Dutch control in the twentieth century.

The western provinces were treated just like any other Dutch province, but if you read my last post about the history of the Netherlands, you’ll know that this was a very brief period of unification. The Belgian revolution began in 1830 and ended with the Treaty of London in 1839. I’m skipping over all of this because the important part for our purposes is that the treaty gave Belgium the western half of Luxembourg, which is now (somewhat confusingly) also called Luxembourg (dark blue in the southeast here).

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Actually, when I told my colleague that I would be spending the weekend in Luxembourg, he asked, “The province or the country?”

And that’s how Luxembourg gets its current form.

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Even though the borders would be set for a long time to come, Luxembourg was in no condition to be a sovereign state. It remained part of the German Confederation until its dissolution with the Austro-Prussian War in 1867. Emperor Napoleon III tried to buy Luxembourg from King William III of the Netherlands. The Prussians still controlled the fortress (in what is now Luxembourg City), and they were not about to let the French just walk in. The most dissatisfying compromise for everyone was that no one would get the province, and it would remain neutral and disarmed. Though still technically the personal playground of the King of the Netherlands, Luxembourg was basically on their own at this point. With the death of William III in 1890, Luxembourg passed to the hands of Adolf of Nassau-Weilburg, the progenitor of the dynasty that still reigns today.

But despite all these pretty pictures, it doesn’t seem like any of this would make Luxembourg rich!

No, it didn’t. Luxembourg was pretty poor at this time. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, that Luxembourg started to put its mineral deposits to use. During the decades leading up to the First World War, immigrants flooded into Luxembourg to work in the mines and steel mills replacing the thousands of emigrants who flooded out of the industrializing capital in the nineteenth century. The increase in labourers led to legislative actions that would lay the groundwork for progressive worker protections in the twentieth century.

The First World War put a real damper on the economy after Germany violated the country’s neutrality, and devastating fighting ruined much of the countryside when they were pushed back. After the war, Luxembourg broke ties with Germany and realigned with Belgium. The “Roaring Twenties” is often characterized in the US by massive steelworks and the first skyscrapers; much of this steel came from Luxembourg. With increasing wealth came pressure for labour reform, and Luxembourg led the world in workers’ rights legislation such as a sliding pay scale that was pegged to the cost of living.

The economic crisis of the 30s hit Luxembourg as well, and another German occupation in the 40s meant that little progress was made until the end of the war in 1945.

It turns out that rebuilding a continent ravaged by four years of the most destructive warfare in history is pretty good for a country whose dominant industry is steel. On top of that, a forward-looking government pursued diversifying policies that attracted investors from around the world and aligned industries with other European nations through the European Economic Community (EEC), a predecessor of the EU.

By the time of the oil crisis in 1975, Luxembourg had 23 registered unemployed. No, I didn’t forget a unit there. Less than two dozen Luxembourgers were registered as unemployed in 1974.

The decade of the oil crisis saw a massive reorganization of industry and government as Luxembourg tried to weather to storm. A fundamental change was the creation of the Tripartite Coordinating Committee. The government was heavily involved in industry (holding a majority stake in the monopolist steel company), and from the 1970s onward, it would do so in a tripartite arrangement: requiring the approval of business owners, labour leaders and public officials. This restructuring alongside other very generous social welfare reforms allowed the Luxembourgish steel industry to survive the crisis and remain an important industry even today.

In the final two decades of the twentieth century, Luxembourg hit its first real boom. Ventures into the financial sector and IT alongside a very friendly tax environment (for both businesses and wage-earners) led to an average GDP growth per annum of over 5%, just behind Ireland, who is often hailed as the great European success story.

The next two decades were even better. With only a small faltering after the 2009 financial crisis, Luxembourg’s GDP has increased every year since 1980.

Good timing, a proactive and nimble government, and some valuable expertise have set Luxembourg in the perfect place to ride the waves of the global economy all the way to immense prosperity.

But this doesn’t feel particularly satisfying because lots of countries are in finance and IT. Lots of places can be seen as tax havens. What makes Luxembourg so special?

I’m going to offer my own hunch here. I think it stems from two things:

  1. They were first. This reorganization took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of Europe was still recovering from the war, the Asian Tigers were just starting to figure out how to do modern economies, Latin America and Eastern Europe were mostly trying to figure out how to get rid of totalitarianism, and the US was already too big and diverse to make sweeping reforms.
  2. Labour protections. Wages pegged to cost of living, tripartite decision-making, and strong unions. Luxembourg requires that employers pay fairly, and business-friendly policies attract the kind of capital to make such pay possible. This way, Luxembourg actually pays lower than the EU average in wealth redistribution, yet the minimum wage is about $28,000. That would be about $15/hour.

There is another reason why Luxembourg is the wealthiest country in the world per capita:

Lazy statistics.

Typically, GDP is calculated as the amount of money earned in the country over the course of the year divided by the average population over the year. That would give GDP per person, right?

Kind of.

Here’s a fun fact: about 40% of the people who work in Luxembourg don’t live in Luxembourg. Another third are immigrants and the rest are actually Luxembourgish. I’m guessing that’s why the UN statistics put Luxembourg third behind Liechtenstein and Monaco. Although it skews the data a bit, even correcting for it leaves a GDP per capita of over $100,000 (on the same scale, the US is at about $60k).

I think what you’re seeing when you walk around Luxembourg City is that the only people living there are the ones who can afford to stay. The ones who can’t afford to commute live on the outskirts of town (there are outskirts, and they’re definitely less pretty). The rest live comfortably in places that are a bit less expensive, but they can afford to commute.

So why is Luxembourg so rich? They work with money. It’s the best way to make money.

dammit, I knew I should have gone into finance…

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Mullerthal trail

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These are the kinds of German forests that must have inspired Grimm’s fairy tales.

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Monument to the United States military that liberated Luxembourg twice.

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Upon crossing the bridge into the old city, my first reaction (and I think many others’ is too) was “Is this place real?”

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The city is immaculately well tended.

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Rond Ter Streep op de fiets

I have made an almost complete survey, and I can say with high certainty that Ter Streep is indeed still an island. If you read my first post from Oostende, you may have caught that the origin of the name Oostende (literally “east end”) actually does make sense even though it is in the far west of the country. The city was on the east end (really, the northeast end; the coastline runs basically SW-NE here) of an island called Ter Streep. After a few centuries of ambitious civil engineering, this island has been brought into the mainland. Almost. The water that separates Ter Streep from the rest of the country has been reduced to a series of canals, perhaps a meter deep and a few meters across at some points. But it does appear that Ter Streep is still only connected to the rest of the country by bridges.

I confirmed this by circumnavigating the island. It took me a few hours, but I could have done it in half that if I didn’t stop every 10 minutes to take pictures.

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Google Maps will tell you it’ll take several hours, but Google’s rider is on a rusty old fat tire. My new machine moves a bit faster. Indeed, it startled me how much this horse wants to jump out from under me when I crank on the pedals. I’ve made quite a leap from the aluminum wreck I wrote about last weekend.

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I mentioned last weekend that my new ride just wasn’t very enjoyable to ride. Getting my new Orbea up to speed is sheer joy. That’s the way a bike should be. I honestly didn’t think I’d own a bike like this anytime soon. I’ve had to do some creative budgeting, and I’ll need to make some sacrifices, but it’s about priorities. And when a bike like this in on 25% discount, it’s very hard to pass up.

My ride this morning started before sunrise, but the bike paths in the city are fairly well lit, and I got a pretty powerful headlight. In a place where daylight hours bottom out around eight, I figured it was a good investment. It was the intention to circumnavigate the island, so it started by getting out to the first lock of the canal that forms the southeast side. There are a handful of historic buildings at the junction, which was once a guarded entrance to a Spanish fort. It is also a popular meeting place. As I was figuring out which way I wanted to go, a group of cyclists started to form. They kept looking at me, and I guessed they were trying to figure out if I was joining them. They were headed toward Bruges, but they were going offroad. Most of them had mountain bikes. And they were properly outfitted in matching spandex. They were only the first of several such pelotons I saw today.

 

 

 

They headed east to Bruge, and I headed south along the canal. The bike trail continues almost uninterrupted all the way to Westende (and maybe next time I’ll turn left to take the route to Dunkirk). But I kept getting distracted by things in the middle. Including this random little nature reserve.

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Of course, I had to go check it out.

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Soon enough, I bypassed the town that marks the middle of the island, Middelkirke (“middle church”), but it didn’t take long to get to Westende.

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Although I don’t buy into the myths and ceremonies that the building was constructed to support, I find the social utility of such a conspicuous and beautiful civic center very charming. Even though most Europeans aren’t religious anymore (apparently I qualify as “Christian” by Belgian standards because my family celebrates a purely secular Christmas), there is definitely a community culture here. People seem driven to participate in local events and take pride in their communities. I’ll have to dig into specifics at some points, but that’s a feeling that I’ve gotten throughout northern and western Europe.

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There’s a focus on more than just utility here. Even simple buildings are aesthetically pleasing. Few buildings are merely a collection of walls to accomplish some purpose. Even new buildings copy the traditional style with distinctly 21st-century additions.

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Ashley had a conversation with someone a couple weeks ago who claimed that Belgium got something like 50% of their electricity from renewables. In truth, their goal for 2020 is to get 18%, but I can see where there’s confusion. Everyone has solar panels! What more electricity could we need?!

Do you think those panels are generating much electricity with that kind of sky? No. And it’s like this most of the year. It’s a nice gesture, but there are a hundred better ways to spend that money to increase renewable energy. Here’s one of them:

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A combined wind & solar farm that powers probably a couple thousand homes. They’re old turbines. The ones with the boxy nacelle (the house on top where the blades are attached) are 900kW machines. The next wind farm Parkwind builds will use turbines that are 10 times as powerful.

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Orbea should pay me for advertising. I wonder if they pay for renewable energy for their factories? That’d be cool.

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Finally, I reached the end of the island and on the other side of the water, I found Nieuwpoort. I hope I don’t have to translate that one.

I thought Oostende was cute, but this takes it to a level that’s actually a bit uncomfortable.

 

 

The way back was far less distracting. And I also threw off my elevation measurement because I climbed an observation tower. It says I gained 84m on that section. That was almost all on the tower.

I once made a comment that Rotterdam was flatter than Kansas. Seems to be true throughout the coastal areas of the low countries.

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When I reached a section that follows the beach, I stopped while I was walking my bike over the piles of sand that had blown onto the walk. Having recently watched a documentary on World War II, I thought about how Oostende could have been the site for D-Day.

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When I turned around, I realized that Hitler had the same thought.

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This area is teeming with history. The system of canals has been in progress since the British and French were bickering over their colonies in the Americas. The layouts of the streets can probably be traced back to the Middle Ages. This beachfront has concerned military commanders since amphibious assaults became a viable military tactic, and many of the fortifications the Nazis had hoped would keep the Allies from opening up a second front in Western Europe are still here.

And now that I have a liberating mode of transportation, I get to go see all of it!

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Back to writing

Today’s image: Sunset over Oostende harbor. The fastest way to work is via a ferry across the harbor, mostly used by tourists who can park for free on the industrial side and ferry to the city center. The six steel columns in the left of the frame are attached to the ship. It’s called a jack-up vessel. Those legs push down into the sea bed, lifting the ship out of the water, making it a stable platform for heavy lifting. In a few months she will begin assembling the turbines of Belgium’s next offshore wind farm.

Hello readers! It has been quite a while since I’ve had any travel stories for you. Not that I haven’t had any travels, but I’ve been distracted by other media. After my brief endeavors into video and audio, I’ve realized that I prefer the written word far more. It’s not always the best way to take in information, but in terms of putting ideas straight and reinforcing my own memories, there’s nothing like it. It seems to be the purest form of collected thought. There’s no worrying about my voice or the frame or monitoring the recording equipment. Really the only limitation is the speed at which I can type/write, which doesn’t always keep up with my thoughts. But I’d rather have that than the opposite situation, which I find myself in every time I open my mouth.

Video and audio have their advantages, and I’ll use them when appropriate. But for now, it’s back to the written word. And not a moment too soon! Indeed, several moments too late. I’m already embarked on my latest adventure.

A few weeks ago, I made a week-long stop in New York City to see some family and finalize my paperwork for a visa. Early this month, I arrived in Belgium, where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. A former classmate-now colleague kindly allowed me to stay in his spare bedroom in his apartment in Gent for 10 days, but a couple weeks ago, I moved into my own place in Oostende (more about the city further down). For the first time in a while, I have a space where I truly feel comfortable and at home. Part of that comfort is the fact that this place is very quiet. Oostende is a quiet town this time of year already, and my courtyard-facing balcony of an apartment building on a one-way side street means that it can get deathly silent in here. I really like that.

One thing that has become more and more clear over the past few weeks is that I don’t do well in big crowds. Busy cities, packed streets, crowded rooms. Not for me. I’ve known I was an introvert since I learned the word, but despite my training to be more socially adept, I’ve gotten more in touch with my introverted self. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, mentioned some research into extroversion vs introversion that has helped me understand what makes someone introverted or extraverted. They can actually figure out with pretty high accuracy your level of extraversion if you’re when you’re an infant. Some study examined how babies react to noise. Depending on how much noise it took to get them to react, they were classified into two major groups: “high reactives” and “low reactives”. The former reacted strongly to a little noise, while the latter required a lot of noise to get them to react. Can you guess which ones grew up to be introverts?

Here’s a hint: many of us introverts hate the sound of chewing. Even a distant sound of someone’s barbaric gnashing can set us grinding our own teeth in forced civility. We react highly to small stimuli.

That bit of knowledge has helped significantly in understanding why I find it so difficult to enjoy places like New York City. The noise is overwhelming. The crowds are consuming. The lights are often unbearable. When I don’t have anywhere to be, it can be an interesting ethnographic exercise to observe these strange creatures who thrive in such an environment. But when I have reason to join the crowd, to dodge aggressive taxis, to squeeze into crowded subway cars, or match the impatience of the long-adjusted New Yorker, the input is simply too much. Either I find my frustration and annoyance bubbling over in rage, or I simply shut down all emotions, including those of tolerance, patience, respect, and generosity.

I don’t think that New Yorkers are mean people. Indeed, I was able to spend a week there because of the generosity of my family who took me in, fed me, guided me, and provided a listening ear. But they can often come across as rude and inconsiderate, selfish and intolerant. I think I understand. Even the low-reactive types, who feed on the energy of a bustling sidewalk or cramped cafe, can only take in so much and give back so much. We only have the capacity to show care and deference to so many people. The thousands of strangers one comes into contact with in New York City have little hope of joining that small circle, and so at best, they treat each other with the indifferent cordiality of social convention.

The time in New York was definitely enjoyable. Explorations of the seemingly endless museum collections, lively dinners with family, and jazz clubs brightened by musicians who would be the talk of the town in just about any other part of the world. But I’m glad to have found somewhere a bit quieter to settle.

Oostende isn’t the place you would expect an adventurous twenty-something to enjoy, but it works for me. It’s a tourist town right in the middle of Belgium’s short North Sea coast. The local demographic probably has a median age decades my senior, but that means people turn in early. Like me! The coffee is pretty good, and the dining is endless. The city center is built for people, not cars. The nearest mountain is two countries away, but the sea is only a block away, and that seems to provide the necessary contact with Nature. The train station, bus station, and tram stop are only a 10-minute walk. From there, I can be almost anywhere in Belgium in less than two hours and almost anywhere in Western Europe in a few more. There are more kilometers of bike paths than I will be able to explore. The weather isn’t great for cycling right now, but it will probably be summer before I can put away the money I’ll need for the kind of bike I want anyway.

This place is also brimming with history. The town of Oostende dates back to the Middle Ages when this area wasn’t even connected to the rest of Europe. Until about 600 years ago, it was an island, on which the villages of Westende, Middelkerke, and Oostende (West-end, Middle-church, and East-end, respectively) developed around the fishing trade. Improving hydrological engineering and the money from trade allowed the people of the town to build a series of dikes and canals that protected it from the sea and connected it to the mainland. This is actually the second time I’ve lived in a strategic Medieval trading post. Visby constantly changed hands as it was the central port for trade across the Baltic. Oostende was sacked multiple times for its strategic position on the North Sea, especially when the port of Antwerp was blocked. Between 1601 and 1604, it became the site of the bloodiest battle of the Eighty Years’ War, which culminated in Dutch independence from the Spanish Empire in 1648. The siege of the city by the ruling Spanish Empire took just over three years and ended in over 100,000 dead or wounded and was a major loss for the Dutch and English. The current layout of the city center (where I live) was set by the 18th century, but most of the buildings from that period were destroyed in a magazine explosion in the late nineteenth century and when it changed hands during both of the world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. Most buildings appear to be from the post-war period. And that’s what I’ve learned just from Wikipedia! Lots more exploring and learning to be done!

And I’ll have to brush up on my war history. I know I’ve heard the names of many of these battles, but I didn’t realize that they were in Belgium: Liège, Antwerp, Ypres, Mons. Actually, much of the first World War was fought in this region! Much of World War II centered around the German offensive and the Allied counteroffensive through the Ardennes, the forested region in southern Belgium. So much to explore!

Also, this town just got a lot smaller. I finally found myself a bicycle. It’s not much, but it’s a pair of wheels, and it will get me a lot farther a lot faster than I could go on foot.

I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures, and I’ll try to post them on here. But many of them will show up first on Instagram and Facebook.

Rainy Saturday

Hi everyone. Just a quick photo update. Been at home all day, but that wasn’t so bad. It was incredibly productive, and I went for a walk this evening. It was magic hour, and in this part of the world, it’s particularly magical. Also a couple random videos.

 

European Adventure Day 22: Tórshavn

As I said, I’m done. Not done enjoying my travels, but I’m done trying to prove anything. I’ve left the light suffering of outdoor living for the comfort of the city and have moved into a cozy apartment in Tórshavn for a couple days. Tomorrow, I’ll meet with a friend of a friend, but tonight is for being alone and enjoying some sustainably raised Faroese salmon with roast vegetables. I’ve been missing this meal. Thanks for the recipe, Mom!

 

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(I’m not sure how to share this “photosphere”, but if you can actually scroll around in a 360° view, this is the best I’ve been able to capture the view.)

 

 

 

European Adventure Day 21: Faroe Islands – part 2

I forgot something yesterday. I had another item on my to do list for this adventure: hitchhiking. And I had great success. I cought five rides that took me out to the western end of the islands and back. Except for getting back from the almost uninhabited west coast of Vágar, it took less than ten minutes to get picked up. The first driver, Johannes, was on his way to work in Tórshavn. He has worked for Maersk for 23 years both on the sea and as an engineer for their oil drilling division. We may have opposing industries, but we had a great conversation. The second gentleman spoke only enough English to figure out where I wanted to go and even drove 4km past his destination to drop me closer to the trailhead. On the way back, it took my walking abouy 45 minutes back past the small town of Bøer, where I had been dropped off, to flag down a young man, Samuel, who was on his way to Tórshavn for some errands. We had a great talk about rowing on the fjords since I could sympathize with similarly choppy water on the Severn. The next car was a couple on their way back from a day in Tórshavn. Bodur (something like that) is a fisherman who works mainly between Greenland and Iceland, so he works two months away and has two months off at home. His wife, Bekka (sp?), cares for their three kids while he’s away, but he makes up for it when he returns! The last leg back to Klaksvik was with a couple of elderly gentleman who spoke almost no English but were having a lively conversation the entire time. Faroese is a really charming language. It sounds a lot like the Gotlandic dialect of Swedish but completely incomprehensible to me.

The hike in the middle was short but yet another walk into a foreign world. The island off the coast, Mykines, looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park. The view of the hamlet on the far side of the ridge is in no way captured by the photo. It just can’t reflect the scale. I deleted half the pictures I took because they were so disappointing.

 

 

The hi

European adventure day 7: Salzburg

The hills are alive with the sound of tourism!

I’m still working through my aversion to tourism, and it’s leading me some pretty dark places. Perhaps I’ll be able to put them together into a cogent enough form to share. Hopefully, some discussion with Joel and T’ew this weekend will help me organize these thoughts. In the meantime, here are some shots from Salzburg and an update.

 

 

 

The hardest part is making this a challenge

Last year I was somehow able to produce a significant amount of writing each week. Having seemingly nothing for yet another week in my new hometown, I took a look back at what I was writing this time last year. It seems I was much better at getting myself into shenanigans last year. I really have to try to make things exciting anymore. This time last year was I making a whirlwind trip to Japan, trying to find things to write about for a more professional blog, and continually getting myself lost in urban jungle of Seoul. Now, my biggest adventure is a 15km ride to township of less than a thousand people in the center of this quiet little island I’ve found myself on.

This doesn’t mean I’m enjoying myself any less. I can’t remember the last time I was this comfortable in a place. My house almost feels like a real home, the city actually gets quiet at night, I watch the incredible colors of the sunset from my balcony every night, I’m making friends with some great people, and I have ample time to study the things that interest me.

However, it’s much more tame. The challenge is to make it a challenge. Forcing myself to speak Swedish when I have the chance, exploring the city and the island in my free time, and taking up new hobbies like rock climbing are all that add excitement to this new life. Even keeping this blog up to date is a challenge in itself.

So, I don’t have much to share this week (again), but I do have a few photos. Enjoy!

 

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On my way to Roma, I caught sight of a lone wind turbine. Gotland has plenty of wind, and the people take advantage.

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The area around Roma is criss-crossed with quaint roadways that look like paths to another world.

monastery arches

The ruins of this abbey still stand after over 800 years. The Cistenciencer monastery housed monks between 1164 and some time in the sixteenth century. Only one of the buildings remains, but the foundations of the rest of the complex can still be seen. Today, the monastery is used for plays and other cultural activities.

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Morning is still my favorite time of day. The fresh air of this quiet little island is especially crisp at dawn.

Mina första dagar på Gotland

I knew there was a catch. There had to be a catch. This place was too perfect. My room is small but clean and just big enough for all my stuff. The house is cozy and well-equipped. My roommates are fun, engaging, and mature. My landlords are incredibly kind. The town has been just lovely. It takes only a quarter of an hour to cross the cobblestone streets of the inner city, protected from the fully modern world by a stone wall that has stood for over seven centuries. Yet, within these walls, I’ve found all I need. On my first day I was able to secure a reliable bicycle that will be my means of touring the island and order the necessary part to repair my guitar. I had almost fallen in love with this city when I realized the catch: undergrads.

It was only a matter of time before I got sick. The pattern continues as my immune system crumbles after about a month in a new country. It hasn’t been horrible. I’ve even been able to tour a bit outside the city on my bike in the depths of the illness, and I think I’m just about out of it. However, not wanting to be sniffling my way through the first day of class, I’ve been strict about resting over the past few days. My neighbors, however, had other ideas.

I had shaken off the headphones that had helped lull me to sleep. I had turned in before 9pm, intending on getting a solid eight or nine hours of sleep. Yet, with my ears again exposed, my mind awoke to the shrill shredding guitars of death metal. The paper thin windows made it seems as though the party were on my balcony, not two doors down. I awoke feeling surprisingly rested, but a glance at the clock told me I would regret starting my day. It was just past 2 am.

The music had come from a different party last night, and it must have ended earlier because I was able to sleep through the night. This fest, however, was more persistent. With a cup of chamomile tea, I gazed at the stars from my balcony until the music subsided at nearly 3 am.

The strangest part of the episode was, however, that I kept my frustration in check. Perhaps it has been post-adolescent calming of nerves, but a significant factor last night was the fact that I was enjoying the music. As I tried to fall asleep again before resigning myself to tea, I found my feet bouncing in rhythm as they hung off the edge of the bed to the rapid thundering of Pantera. Yet, good music keeps me up just as much as bad at that volume. When someone finally had the sense to turn it down, I could only hope that this was only a final celebration before classes resume. Yes, I understand it’s Saturday night. I guess I’m just getting too old for this shit.


Anyway, I’ve used my weekend to do a bit of exploring and get some active rest. My trusty bike already has several dozen kilometers on its old wheels. I intend to make it worth every crown I paid for it.

Yesterday’s exploration took me south along the coast. I first located an ecovillage called Suderbyn. They are a sustainable community that strives to show how small communities can operate in harmony with their environment by growing their food using sustainable farming practices, generating their own power or tapping into renewable energy sources, and sharing their knowledge through local and international seminars. It was still early when I arrived, so I just read a few of the informational posters, but I will have to return to get a full tour.

On my way back, I detoured out to the coast to Högklint, the tallest cliff in the area from which much of Visby is visible. Already windy inland, the gusts whipped the straps of my bag violently as I tried to snap photos. Trails below me and anchors on top indicate that this area is popular for rock climbing. I plan to join a local climbing club (which has build a climbing was inside an old grain silo), so perhaps I’ll make the next ascent vertically.

This morning, I just went for a stroll through the city. It was very quiet on this Sunday morning; just the way I like it. There are ruins dotting the old city. They are mostly churches from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There were fourteen in all, but now only the large cathedral remains in tact and still holds services.

I wandered outside the wall on my way back. It still amazes me that the wall is in such good repair after centuries of neglect. It was originally erected at the end of the thirteenth century by the wealthy merchants to defend the city against the peasant farmers who would eventually be competed out of the trans-Baltic trade. The wall succeeded in protecting the merchants in an early fourteenth century civil war, but it did little when the Danes invaded in 1361. It was not siege warfare that brought down the city, but the display of brutality when the Danes slaughtered thousands of farmers (whose numbers had plummeted after the plague struck a decade earlier) just outside the walls. The people of Visby capitulated, and the island fell under Danish control for two centuries.

I’ll try to add these tidbits of history to these posts. This island has an incredibly interesting past. As a hub of trans-Baltic trade, it changed hands several times during the centuries when northern and eastern Europe depended on this trade route.

cykel stor

My new steed

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The Gotland countryside is basically a vast array of farms.

högklite

A windy blue day on cliffs

Visby vägg

The wall remains mostly intact despite Gotland’s collapse after the Danish invasion in 1361.

visby väggstor

Many of the 13th century buildings remain because no one had the means to tear them down after Gotland’s economy collapsed after the Danish invasion of 1361.