Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Medieval Meets Modernity

Happy Canada Day from Tallinn Estonia!

I must admit that when I first saw Tallinn on the itinerary for this trip, I viewed it as an intermediate locale that seemed perfectly situated on the Baltic Sea in order to break up the voyage to St. Petersburg. To say that I was entirely wrong is an understatement. Tallinn is truly a great surprise. The oldest capital city in Northern Europe, Talłinn has managed to straddle the line between old and new, combining its gothic medieval architecture in Old Town, with a vibrant twenty-first century culture complete with vibrant cafes, boutiques, and a thriving high tech industry. Estonia has been kicked around throughout history, including being annexed by the former Soviet Union, but these are a proud people and when the Soviet Union crumbled, Estonia was the first country to declare its independence in 1991. Walking through the narrow paths and cobblestone streets, untouched for centuries, you get a real sense of how Tallinn has remained true to itself since its founding in 1154.

Let's play some Tallinn Trivia and see how much you all know about this beautiful country of Estonia.

Ok, Alex. I'll take Tallinn industry for $500

What major online communication phenomenon was developed in Estonia?

If you answered Skype, then give yourself the money. And if you said that one of the chief developers was named Jean Tallinn, then proceed to the Daily Double. Tallinn is also a completely free WiFi city. How freaking civilized is that?

How about Religuous Symbols for $200, Alex?

What Christmas symbol had its first public showing in Tallinn?

If you answered the Christmas tree, then Alex is very proud of you. The very first public Christmas tree was displayed in the Tallinn Old Town Hall Square in 1441. Apparently the locals danced around the foliage and then promptly burned it to the ground.

Let's go with Botany for $100.

What gin making berry is native to the region?

If you didn't get juniper berry then smack yourself upside the head. Shame on you!! Juniper berries were thought to cure a variety of diseases in medieval times. When we visited the world's oldest apothecary in Old Town, we saw dried berries still on display in what is still a working pharmacy. If you look very carefully, you will notice that each one grows with a tiny cross on top. Healers in the Middle Ages were convinced that they kept the devil at bay. The Husband just wanted to sample the local spirit.

One more...

Food and drink for $300.

What confection had its beginnings in Estonia?

Marzipan! Although I loathe the stuff, it is a favourite of Twin Son's Better Half and it was fascinating to look at the artistic designs in the sweet shops windows. 


Monday, 29 June 2015

A City of Contradictions

The Husband was able to succinctly sum up my very conflicted emotions about Berlin. He described it as a city that has lived its entire history at the political extremes and is now attempting to reconcile its past with its present and future. Traces of imperialism, monarchies, facism, communism, and democratic capitalism are all bubbling just beneath the surface here at every rebuilt building and every reimagined monument or memorial. And the city is teeming with both. There was very little left untouched by the Berlin bombings at the end of World War II. Ninety percent of all buildings in the city were destroyed, and as such there has been a reconstruction and overhaul that is a strange mix of both old and new. To their credit, the Germans are neither hiding from nor whitewashing their horrific history, and are at the very least, making every effort to honour and memorialize the vicitms of both the Shoah and of the Soviet regime. A once divided city is now whole, but there are shadows of the past that haunt this place and are forever inescapable. 

I felt tremendous pain and emotional upheaval today. I instinctively understood that in every place I walked, Nazis marched. At every government building or library that we visited, I recalled visuals of black and white newsreels of Hitler giving speeches or Nazi rallies. It is terribly unfair to the modern day Berliners who are really attempting to be exemplary world citizens, but it is a part of my psyche that I will never be able to fully discard. 

So, while we visited the square in front of the Law School at Humboldt University, all I could see was the poignant memorial to the Berlin book burnings of 1933. At the refurbished Olympic stadium, still remarkably intact since 1936, I saw Jesse Owens quietly dispelling the myth of the "master race". On Museum Island, where culture has overtaken politics, I was starkly reminded of Hitler's rallies on the steps of one of the rebuilt facades. At the Reichstadt, the seat of German democracy, my mind replayed photographic images of the swastika hanging from its columns. I could not abandon my history and heritage for even one moment of today's tour. 

But, it was at the Holocaust Memorial, aptly named The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, where I was struck mute. I silently wept as we made our way through the columns of 2711 individually-sized granite blocks. The stones are uninscribed and stark, almost like nameless headstones. As we walked through, there were times when the ground dropped and sloped and almost caused me to lose balance. We felt enveloped and surrounded on all sides, with no means of escape. I was emotionally spent after just five minutes and was relieved not to have to visit the museum below. I honestly do not believe I could have handled it. 

This is a new Berlin; fresh, vital, modern, and free. But, for those of us who are charged with and emotionally burdened by "never forgetting", it might take a little longer to see it that way. 




Sunday, 28 June 2015

Scandinavian Quick Hits

Here are some quick hits gleaned from our first few days in the Nordic countries.

* They may seem like peace-loving and tolerant people today, but their history belies their current status. These countries were constantly at war with one another and there still exists a fierce rivalry. Our guide today in Gothenburg was quick to point out all of the times that the Danes invaded Sweden and destroyed their city over the past four centuries, making special note of their use of fire. I am now firmly convinced that the Danes have a pyromaniacal gene that seems to follow them from palace burnings to maraudings.

* Nobody seems to want Norway. It was first owned by the Danes, but as a condition of surrender during one of their many battles, it was handed over to the Swedes. The poor Norwegians seemed to ping pong back and forth throughout he centuries until finally declaring their own independence. They did get the last laugh, though. Norway is the only Scandanavian country with off-shore oil, making them independently wealthy. The Swedes, stupidly forgoing the Norwegian offer to share, had to settle for Volvo. (Headquartered in Gothenburg.)

* The Swedes take tremendous pride in their heritage, so much so that even the inside of their churches are designed in a style known here as Romantic Nationalism. We saw one today in Gothenburg called Masthuggs that was designed around a Viking ship on the ceiling.

* These are self-deprecating and funny people. The weather here today was cruddy, but we were told by our guide that Sweden always tries to be accommodating to her visitors by giving them an authentic Swedish experience. It is also amazing that the skies cleared for the one hour we were on a Paddan canal tour and the sun shone brightly. (Paddan is a Swedish word meaning toad. These open air boats travel leisurely through the canals and gave us so marvellous views of the old-world European charm of the city.) That's because, according to our guide Ingela, we were only allotted a single hour of sunshine and that was the hour chosen. Her comedy was very much in tune with our Canadian sense of humour.

* The people of Gothenburg worship fish. I'm not kidding. They actually say that. Worship. The fishing industry here dates back centuries and is still quite prominent today. They have even named their central fish market the Fish Church and have designed the building to resemble a cathedral. In my next life, I think that I might like to worship bees. They are communal creatures who all work together for the good of the collective. The bee is essential to the entire food chain. It seems a much more impressive creature to worship rather than a fish, but this is Sweden.

* Everything here is based on stories or legends. It's difficult to know where the truth ends and the fiction begins. An example: Looking out over the harbour in Gothenburg, stands a sculpture known as the Sailor's Wife. She was erected as a memorial to the seven-hundred sailors who perished during the First World War. It is said that she is looking out toward the ocean waiting for her beloved to return. But...she isn't really facing the ocean, but rather the island on the other side of the canal. Gossips insist that she is actually pining for her lover who lived on the island, rather than for her husband. See? Legends.

* We watched the sunset last evening at 10:45. That was magical.

A leisurely afternoon aboard ship while we prepare for a huge day ahead tomorrow in Berlin.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Four Jews in Search of A Viking

It is very disconcerting to awaken at 4:00am to blazing daylight. It can be extremely unnerving for those individuals who need complete darkness by which to sleep, but for those of us who embarks the summer sunlight, it is truly life-affirming.

That was our first impression of Oslo as we sailed into port this morning through the Oslofjord. Welcome to the homeland of Edvard Munch, Henrik Ibsen, Gustav Vigeland, Thor the God of Thunder, Thor Heyerdahl, and Roald Amundsen. If you need a refresher on any of the aforementioned, Google is a wonderful invention. We had a jammed packed day planned, so advance preparation was important. Once again, I am thankful to Odin (see what I did there?) that we have chosen to travel with such amazing people. Twin Son's Better Half had this place totally scoped out before I even started my morning cuppa. 

We headed to retrieve our Oslo passes which not only allowed us entrance to all museums and displays, but access to all public transportation services, buses, trams, and ferries, throughout the city. It continually amazes me whenever I travel, how truly dysfunctional my hometown is when it comes to transportation and infrastructure. The world is absolutely passing us by. 

We made our way down the the main thoroughfare, Karl Johansgate where Pride celebrations are in full swing. The entire city is festooned in rainbow. It seems all the more appropriate given yesterday's long overdue decision in the U.S. We headed directly to the National Museum so that I could view Munch's iconic piece "The Scream". This extraordinarily disturbing painting has finally be encased behind glass so that the Norwegians can protect their national treasure from yet another theft. I could have spent hours viewing Munch's work. His impressionistic stylings are breathtaking and viewed alongside Van Gogh, Matisse, and others made my morning.

In order to save our aching feet, we hopped a tram headed to Frogland Park where to life's work of Gustav Vigeland is on full display. Covering more than eighty acres and composed of over two hundred bronze and granite castings, the Vigeland sculpture installation needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. The raw human emotions and conditions are beyond impressive, and the detail is stunning.

But it is his imagined connection to a Viking past that had Twin Son all a twitter. Based on some ridiculous notion of a posting of his family name on some log somewhere, has him convinced that his Polish Jewish ancestors had a hint a Viking blood. And so it came to pass that four Jews bused across Oslo to the Viking Ship Museum to view the four massive vessels, circa 800 AD, that have been excavated from all points around the country. Personally, I think he's nuts. There is no possible way that Jews built these magnificent ships. We simply are devoid of the handyman gene. We would have been far more likely to have hired out the work. 

A quick ferry ride (Yay Dawn!! No puking!) back to port where we were fortunate enough to have time to peruse the Nobel Peace Prize museum. Vigeland actually designed the medal which is on display here, but it was the exhibit in tribute of Malala, this year's co-winner, that left me breathless and close to tears. It really does make me wonder how I have been spending my life.

We have been walking our feet off. My FitBit is screaming at me. See you tomorrow from Gothenburg.



Friday, 26 June 2015

Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen

I love Danny Kaye movies. He was a truly gifted actor/musician/comedian. Every movie he made just oozed with charm and fun. In his completely Hollywood-ized "biography" of Hans Christian Andersen, he croons a bit of a love letter to the city of Copenhagen. He sings:

Wonderful wonderful Copenhagen
Salty old queen of the sea
Once I sailed away
But I'm home today
Singing Copenhagen
Wonderful wonderful
Copenhagen for me

I agree with Mr. Kaye. There is a very homey feel to this city by the sea. It is busy and bustling, yet it is self-deprecating and communal. Yesterday, we chatted with a young waiter who attends college in Upstate New York. He told us that his parents couldn't understand why he would want to pay a fortune for his education when he could be getting it for free here at home. Free!!  

As we hopped onto a commuter train, we noticed that there was a car strictly for those with bikes equipped with appropriate racks to secure them. The bike lanes here are totally separated from both cars and pedestrians. This is a city  that has learned to compromise and accommodate all. I can almost hear Torontonian's heads exploding. 

During our canal tour yesterday, our guide Marie pointed out Denmark's contribution to the war in Iraq. It was a lonely submarine now sitting in dry dock in the harbour because it broke down during its mission. It now functions as a naval museum. The Danes seem just fine with this bit of comedy. There is no sense of lost national pride at all.

The people here are determined to enjoy whatever summer has to offer, even if the weather refuses to cooperate. On a chilly evening at Tivoli Gardens, the outdoor cafes and patios are equipped with furs and blankets for patrons to bundle up and/or snuggle up, and outdoor heaters are ignited so that the warmth is felt by all. The season is simply too short not to be savoured, and savour it they do!

Thank you for a wonderful few days, Madam. Mr. Kaye was correct. Copenhagen. She is a friendly old girl of a town.





Thursday, 25 June 2015

Like a Fairy Tale

You have got to love a city and a country that prides itself on being one of the birthplaces of the modern-day fairy tale. That magical spirit is almost a part of the DNA of the people here in Copenhagen.

After an exhausting journey and dinner consumed in a mostly comatose stupor, we awakened refreshed and raring to go this morning. It was our plan to just wander the streets and see where the city took us. I was particularly excited to see the Hans Christian Andersen house and to view his memorabilia and the back stories to his tales. Yes, I had images of Danny Kaye floating around in my head, and for some reason I kept humming the melody to The Ugly Duckling. It is truly amazing to note how much of our modern pop culture has been influenced by Andersen's stories and fables. The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Duckling, Thumbalina...it just goes on and on. Disney in particular, owes Andersen a huge debt of gratitude (for Frozen alone, if not for anything else) and his descendants a huge barrel of cash. You can't walk into a shop anywhere here without tripping over fairy tale paraphernalia.

A lovely, if not a bit bone-chilling cruise of the canals followed. Copenhagen had been built around a series of quiet waterways. There is a massive shipping industry here and the cruise ships are busy and thriving. It was incredibly impressive that our young tour guide Marie, had no trouble keeping up her patter in three distinct languages. I can't imagine the North American teen who is that comfortable thrice. Another fairy tale.

A tour of the Christianborg Palace reminded me that there are still some people in this world who really do lead fairy tale lives. The opulence of the place was eye-popping. The palace is in its third incarnation as the Danes have had some trouble keeping the place from burning. No matter. The royal family has found alternative quarters just down the way at Amaliaborg. It's good to be the Queen.

Tonight...we head to the Tivoli Gardens, hoping to grab dinner and catch the place all lit up. Maybe like H. C might have imagined it in one of his stories? The problem? It doesn't get dark here until near 11:00pm, and the gardens close then, so we will do our best.

A few quick hits.

*Our little boutique hotel is charming and is located in a neighbourhood that has been re-gentrified. I think that it used to be a red light district. The adult store down the street has the biggest collection of dildos in the window I have ever seen. Another fantasy?

*When traveling, it is best to find compatible partners. I love vacationing with Twin Son and His Better Half. We have so many of the same interests and she is a whiz with a map and a spread sheet. Not that that is the only reasoned love her, but it is a definite bonus.

*The Little Mermaid statue, while tiny, was more than worth the effort. It was an exclamation point on the day.

*The bicycle culture here is amazing. This country really understands how to do it right. Thousands of bikers are everywhere. No parking lots. Bicycle parking, even on the commuter trains. They say that everyday in Copenhagen, the locals ride he equivalent of thirty times around the earth. Even in the dead of winter. Stunning!


Monday, 22 June 2015

The Day Before The Journey

Yesterday The Husband told me, in passing, that he thought he needed a butler.

And just as quickly, I responded (with my typical sardonic wit) that he married one.

His fascinating observation was mentioned in the context of our labourious packing exercise for our latest adventure. While he loves to travel and adores the exciting experience of visiting the world's hotspots, the actual preparation for the event seems to flummox this incredibly knowledgeable and monumentally brilliant man. If entirely left to his own devices, he might actually wear the same t-shirt and jeans for the entire two-week period. And while that might suffice for a teenager who is summer backpacking through European hostels, it really doesn't work for a slightly middle-aged man with various social needs at various locations with various climates dictating various clothing demands. 

Now...don't get me wrong. I am all for packing light. I loathe excess baggage, or more explicitly the excess weight it forces us to shlep. So when I say that I have got this preparation thing almost down to a science, I am not exaggerating. 

All of our belongings anally packaged in Ziploc Bags!
What I think The Husband is trying to express through his own procrastination is the fact that while travelling is exciting and adventurous, the preparations needed to facilitate the excursions are far less so. As a matter of fact, in recent years they have become downright onerous. Everything from added airline fees, to baggage weight restrictions, to fighting for overhead compartment space, to security measures that limit my Purell and choice of footwear, to middle seats, to angry passengers and pissed off crew, to the real consideration of whether or not I need to scarf down a heartburn-inducing bagel before I board, can all conspire to make for a truly miserable kick-off of what should be the latest trip of a lifetime. What The Husband has failed to grasp is that my overly compulsive preparations (see the above photo), along with a few luxurious perks provided by American Express Platinum, will serve to alleviate some of the stress that accompanies all of the afore mentioned. 

We make a great team, The Husband and I. I worry about the details and he doesn't. I make lists and he doesn't. I wake up in the middle of the night concerned that I have forgotten something important and he....doesn't. Oh how I wish I had his cool and calm demeanour. How I wish that I could see the forest for the trees. How I wish that I could let the water roll off the duck's back. 

How I wish that he would pack for himself. 

The Husband has a wonderful philosophy about travel. He believes that as long as you have your passport and a credit card you can get anything and go anywhere. He is absolutely correct. And I believe that next time, he should use that credit card to actually hire his butler.

***Check back daily for my travel blogs for the next couple of weeks. The Husband and I really do make a great team. My words and his incredible photography.