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Niklas in America

a travel blog by niklasbergstrand

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Boston, United States

When I was thirteen years old I made a trip with my parents to the United States. The plan was to see the whole of the country in just one and a half weeks. Naturally, that trip was riddled with jetlags, speeding from one point to another, waiting at airports and the general frustration of not being in one place long enough to explore it properly.

Since then I have always wanted to return and catch up on what I missed. However, there has always been one thing or another that has made me postpone my plans. Either it has been lack of money, lack of time, or lack of initiative.

Last year I was stuck in a dead-end job and living in a noisy, bug-infested house in Brixton, South London. It was then that I received an e-mail from my American relative Jay Bergstrand, asking when I would ever make that US trip I had been thinking about for so long. I wasn’t happy with my situation and felt I had little to leave behind. So I made the decision to quit my job, leave the house and go travelling.

After I returned I decided to write up a chronological account of my travels, which you can read on these pages. There is also a map at the top of each page which shows the whereabouts of each location. Many thanks to all the people who let me stay at their places, showed me round, and provided good company on my trip:

Marianne and Roland Kuchel
George and Connie Beasley
Jay and Joyce Bergstrand
Wynness Holmberg and family
Carla, Martha, Leila and Dustin
Jim Bergstrand
Kristina Bergstrand
Kristina and her parents
Janee and Jerry Ahnert
Barbara and Rich Stockwell
Jim Stockwell
Ben and Heather
Jim and Vicki Gorter
Glen Allen

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 10, 2009 from Boston, United States
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Boston, MA

Boston, United States

On the 3rd of September I landed in scorchingly hot Boston with a jetlag and a slight fever, a little bit anxious to be in a new country and not having settled in properly.

After checking in at a youth hostel I decided to begin my trip with some sightseeing in the central parts of town like Beacon Hill, a grand upmarket district with leafy boulevards. However my jetlag soon made me feel very sleepy and early in the evening, after experiencing my first over-sized American meal, I decided to head back to the hostel.

The following day I moved my bags over to the house of a guy called Ken. I had met Ken through the www.couchsurfing.com website - a brilliant thing where people who are interested in meeting foreigners agree to let you sleep on their couch or show you around town. During my visit to the US I stayed at five or six different homes of total strangers, and only had very positive experiences. Not only is the Couchsurfing alternative a money-saver, you also get to see a town from a local’s perspective and discover things that you otherwise probably would have missed.

Later in the day I met up with Brianne, another person from the Couchsurfing website, who had kindly agreed to be my tourist guide for an afternoon. Brianne took me to see the Christian Science centre, as I hold a curious fascination for oddball cults.

Like many other groups, Christian Science has its fair share of controversy. Treatment for an illness is not sought through consulting a doctor or by taking medicine, but by “Christian Science treatment” – a form of prayer said to have a healing effect. Followers believe that illness is caused by fear, ignorance or sin. Brianne told me of recent court cases where parents had refused to take their cancer-suffering kids for conventional treatment. Staff at the Centre did not seem to be very happy to talk about this though.

Over the next few days I checked out Harvard university, saw the house where JFK was born, visited a Kabbalah temple, had some food at a Greek festival and walked for miles through suburban landscapes. Everywhere I went, I would see people jogging or doing some form of exercise. I was surprised to see such fit, health-conscious people in a place like this.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from Boston, United States
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White River Junction, United States

Vermont is a beautiful state with rolling green hills, some pretty little towns and an interesting element of counterculture. This used to be a rather conservative place, but things changed with a large influx of hippies in the 60’s. Nowadays there are countless organic farms run by yoga-practising new-agers. Recently a group of teenagers caused a national uproar by walking round naked in the downtown centre of bohemian Brattleboro, claiming being naked was just “exercising their rights”. Some 13% of the population also support the idea of Vermont breaking free from the US to form an own independent country – further evidence that Vermont is not quite like any other state in the US.

Two friends of my parents, Marianne and Roland Kuchel, live in Fairlee on the border to New Hampshire. I stayed for a few days in their beautiful early 19th century countryside villa.

Roland took me on some trips to nearby towns like Hanover (home to an Ivy-League university) and postcard-perfect Woodstock. One day I rented a car and drove up to Montpelier, the tiny capital of Vermont, which basically consists of just one main street. I also visited the Ben & Jerry’s icecream factory, saw the Von Trapp family lodge (inspiration to that awful film Sound of Music) and visited Burlington – the largest city in Vermont.

I also visited White River Junction, a tiny little town but with a young, arty population. Usually I get claustrophobic after spending too much time in sleepy rural places, but this had a young, eclectic vibe to it. (later in my trip I happened to pick up a travel magazine which listed White River Junction as one of the top-10 hidden gems of America.)

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from White River Junction, United States
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New Hampshire and Maine

Portland, United States

After a few days with the Kuchels in Vermont, I went on a four-day road trip around New Hampshire and Maine.

New Hampshire, famous for its ridiculous state slogan “Live Free or Die”, had some very beautiful country roads that I found by accident after having taken a wrong turn with the car. I drove slowly through these roads, admiring every little apple-farm and artist’s residence along the way. In the afternoon I arrived in Portsmouth – a pretty seaside town. After buying some CDs to play in the car (Frank Black and some ska music), I drove North to York where I spent a lonely night in a motel.

The following day I drove North, stopping at posh seaside towns like Kennebunk where the Bush family are regular visitors. In the afternoon I arrived in Portland, Maine. This town is an attractive, young, liberal, arty enclave situated on a narrow peninsula with water on three sides. I visited an old observatory where I got a very good view. I spent the night further North at the massive house of George and Connie Beasley - a retired diplomat couple who are friends with Roland and Marianne.

The next day I made a trip to the Acadia National Park.

The park itself was nice, although I would find even more spectacular environments later on my trip. I took a little hike, had picnic, swam in a lake and at sunset I drove up to Cadillac Mountain where I was greeted by a magnificent view.

Driving back to the Beasleys, I kept myself awake with the nasty rants of Fox News Radio (their jingle proclaims them being “fair and balanced” but in my opinion they are anything but). It was interesting to be in America at this time with the presidential race in full swing. But it was also quite disturbing to see the amount of backstabbing going on from both sides. TV adverts from the Republicans would portray Obama as a pedophile and a terrorist, and the Democrats would counter with equal doses of scaremongering about McCain. Is it really necessary to partake in such playground tactics to win an election?

I returned to Vermont and the Kuchel’s house through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Although it was too foggy to get a good view of the actual mountains, I was happy to find this pretty creek.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from Portland, United States
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New York

New York, United States

Arriving to New York by train is definitely an impressive experience, seeing the daunting skyline getting closer and closer, and finally arriving right in the middle of the hustle and bustle.

I spent eight exhausting days in New York. During my stay I did lots of gazing at skyscrapers, browsing through record shops and visiting art museums, bars and clubs. I also did lots and lots of walking around the various neighbourhoods such as East Village, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Upper West Side, and the Downtown area.

I had heard many scare-stories about former no-go areas like Lower East Side, but I did not ever feel unsafe. Rather, I felt that a lot of the grit, which sometimes can bring an exciting edge, had been cleaned up. Dirty, low-rent concrete jungles often provide fertile ground for an amazing flora of street art and counterculture. I don’t enjoy walking around with fear of getting stabbed, but gentrification too often comes at a price where the heart and soul of urban life is sacrificed for big business, tourist shops and Starbucks coffee.

Anyone visiting New York on the cheap should probably consider pre-booking their accomodation much in advance. I had the discomfort of having to move from hostel to hostel, and I met several others who were in the same position. One day I got so tired of ringing round to hostels that I decided to make a trip to Harlem. Although the area is probably a lot safer than some decades ago, many people still consider it a no-go area. I figured that it could be easier and cheaper to find a spare room up there. Well, sure it was, but perhaps not the kind that I had expected. The hotels that I visited all rented out their rooms by the hour, one of the owners wanted to know if I smoked crack, and one would keep a 15 dollar deposit for “soiled sheets”.

My housing situation was eventually resolved by bumping into Mariam, a friend from London, who was willing to share a downtown hotel room with me to keep both of our costs down (and spare me from the experience of staying in a bug-infested semi-brothel).

Some of the other people I met during my stay in New York were Madi from Germany, who I went to see a rock concert with at a venue called the “Cake Shop”. New York has a mythical place in music history through legendary, now defunct, venues like CBGBs and Max´s Kansas City, but this place felt like any East London dive back home. I was more impressed by the Harlem jazz club that I visited together with Tuomas, a Finnish friend who works as a chef in New York.

One night I also met a German guy who took me along to see the musical “Hair” in Central Park. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about this sing-a-long performance but my new-found German friend was almost in tears with joy, saying how it ‘reminded him of his puberty’. Another day I also hung out in Central Park with a Scottish guy called Rich. He plays bass in the Swellbellys, a punk band that I was familiar with from the years that I lived in Edinburgh.

During my time in the Big Apple I also had time to visit the MET art museum, attend an independent film-makers conference, visit the Empire State Building, Ground Zero and Wall Street, take the ferry to Staten Island, see the graffitied walls across the Brooklyn bridge and make a long night-time journey out into the Bronx to find a ska concert (I never found it).

Due to some consecutive long nights and early mornings I spent the last day relaxing on the sunny beaches of Long Island.

New York was a great place, but too often I woke up with lack of sleep, and the trouble I had with finding a hostel was a downside. As with my hometown London, I sometimes felt that it was slightly too big and dirty. Rats will scurry away beside you on the sidewalks and subway platforms, and the place can sometimes feel quite claustrophobic. It’s a nice place to visit but I am not sure I would want to live here

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from New York, United States
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Washington DC

Washington, United States

To make my travels around the country easier and cheaper, I purchased an AMTRAK card, which gave me unlimited train travel on the national rail network. These trains are very comfortable but are also incredibly slow and never arrive on time. Fortunately I had some books and my MP3 player to keep me entertained during my long journeys.

The train to Washington DC passed through Baltimore, a rather dire East Coast city which I would visit only if I wanted a ‘real’, gritty experience. Instead I continued on to DC where I stayed for three days. During my time there I saw some of the ‘essential’ stuff like the White House, the Mall and the Capitol where I took a guided tour. I was surprised at how close one can get to the White House building – the fence is only some 50 metres away and you can see through the windows of the house.

On the second day I had a very unlikely encounter in the hostel corridor with my old room-mate James from my time at boarding school in Sweden. He lives in London and although we see each other every now and again, none of us knew that the other was to be in the US. We went to see a 3D film at the Space Museum together – an experience almost as surreal as bumping into each other at the hostel.

On my last day I rented a bike and rode around the city, visiting Arlington Cemetary where JFK lies buried, and also upscale Georgetown.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from Washington, United States
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Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee, United States

Through the Couchsurfing website I had arranged to stay with Joe, a friendly guy who shares my appreciation for ska music. Joe was kind enough to come and pick me up at the station after my 24-hour train ride from Washington. He also gave me a key so that I could come and go as I pleased, and leant me his bike. This kind of hospitality and trust in total strangers is what makes the Couchsurfing way of travelling so great.

In the evening I watched a play (a rendition of Jack the Ripper with fake English accents) in a local theatre, then explored the downtown area on Joe’s bike.

Milwaukee is known for its fine beer and cheese. It also has a large population of German descent. Whether this has any link to it also being the ‘fat capital of the US’ I don’t know, but it does hold the Guiness record for largest number of bars per capita. Despite this, I found the city streets very empty, even though it was a Friday night. This sterile environment was depressing, but in a beautiful way. The only lively spot was some kind of huge Hells Angels-type gathering in a car park, but I made sure to stay well clear of that.

The next day Joe showed me round downtown along the Milwaukee river. We also ate a sourdough pancake at an Ethiopian restaurant and visited a Milwaukee version of the German Oktoberfest. In the evening we went to the birthday party of one of his friends, where I talked to lots of people and tasted some more local beers.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from Milwaukee, United States
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Balsam Lake, United States

Jay Bergstrand, a second cousin to my father, has been extremely kind in helping me organise a lot of my trip. He has a strong interest in genealogy and our Swedish family. Through his help I managed to connect with many of my American relatives throughout the journey, for which I am very grateful.

Jay lives in a small village called Balsam Lake, about 1 ½ hours NorthEast of Mineapolis together with his wife Joyce. This is also the area that my great great grandfather Johan Månsson emigrated to in 1872.

I stayed with Jay and his wife Joyce for five days. During this time I got to meet a lot of relatives and other people with Swedish connections.

The picture above is of Jay and his niece Joyce, whom my parents had met on a trip to Wisconsin in the 1960’s.

Above is Jay’s brother Fred (second from left) with his wife, Jay’s nephew Chuck (middle), Jay’s wife Joyce and Jay.

This is me and Jay with Jay’s niece Tammy who is the manager of a local restaurant.

One day we drove into Minnesota and visited the villages of Lindstrom and Scandia - places with a very strong Swedish history. Scandia is the place where Johan Månsson lived his last years and lies buried.

This is Wynness Holmberg (middle) and her family who also live in Scandia.

Lindstrom had some bizarre signs in Swedish, a giant coffeepot hanging from an old water tower, and a selection of Swedish souvenirs in the shops. The town also boasted a statue of the famous Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg, who had stayed in Lindstrom in the 40’s to do research for his famous book about Swedish immigrants.

During a meeting with the local Swedish club at Jay’s house, I met a man called Larry Lee Philipson. He is an old rockabilly artist who has played with people like Johnny Cash. His list of merits even includes a place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

One day Jay took me to the St. Croix river - a site featuring some unusual ‘potholes’. These were formed during the last ice age when melted ice from the glaciers would whirl around and drill deep holes into the rock. Some of these were more than ten metres deep.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 16, 2009 from Balsam Lake, United States
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Minneapolis, United States

After a few days in Wisconsin, Jay, Joyce and I visited the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis – a grand mansion which used to be the home of a Swedish-American newspaper tycoon. It was interesting to read the newspaper cuttings of stories relating to the Swedish emigrant community. It almost felt like some kind of parallel universe, a second Sweden with its own geography, customs and celebrities.

After this visit I said goodbye to Jay and Joyce and went to meet Soozie - another couchsurfer whom I had arranged to stay with. Soozie had an interesting hobby – breaking into, and exploring, old derelict buildings. Equipped with torches I went with her and her friends to try and enter “Hamm’s”, an old disused brewery complex. According to Soozie’s friend, climbing around in the metal brewpipes was an “amazing experience”. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we never managed to go inside as a police car was parked right outside the building. Plan B was to go to an old park, open a manhole, and explore some underground tunnels. Being slightly claustrophobic I was quite happy that we never found that manhole. I also figured that if I got caught by the cops, they might send me on the next plane back to Sweden, and I definitely wasn’t ready to go home yet!

Instead we ended up going downtown to visit the statue of American TV legend Mary Tyler Moore. Above is a picture of Soozie giving Mary a kiss.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 17, 2009 from Minneapolis, United States
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Chicago, United States

My main reason for visting Chicago was to visit a ska music festival with some international reggae and ska bands. Most of my time was therefore spent at the festival venue, an old warehouse in a middle-of-nowhere part of town. I saw some good bands there such as Symarip, Eastern Standard Time, Green Room Rockers, Dr. Ring Ding, Skapone and Monkey.

I slept at the house of Carla, Martha, Leila and Dustin, another group of couchsurfers willing to host a weary Swedish traveller. They joined me for one night at the ska festival and also took me to hear some Chicago house music at a club.

I thought Chicago’s skyscrapers were more impressive than the ones in New York. This is perhaps because Chicago has more open spaces, allowing you to get a better view of how tall these monstruos structures really are.

The skybar in the Hancock Building allowed for some stunning views over the city.

The last night in Chicago I visited the Green Mill, an old jazz club which apparently used to be a favourite of Al Capone. The underground tunnels beneath the bar, directly connected to an old theatre one block down the street, are rumoured to have been used by Capone to hide liquor.

permalink written by  niklasbergstrand on January 17, 2009 from Chicago, United States
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