Tuesday, September 19, 2017

if it's Tuesday, this must be Stockholm

I had a brief moment of weariness, rolling my suitcase down the ramp from the ferry to the metro station, in search of a working ATM and a wifi connection that would tell me the exchange rate.
Goodbye, euro zone, hello, krone!

Cobblestones are hard on wheels, and on your feet.

Fortunately, I was quickly distracted. Stockholm is a knockout.

In every direction, another exquisite building or archway or bridge.

My hotel is across the street from the Nobel Museum and around the corner from the Royal Palace. Location, location, location.

My room's adorable too.
 On every corner, there are bakeries with hearty bread and tempting pastries.

And glass (aka glacé = ice cream!) This morning it was warm enough to consider a cone. By afternoon, a chill swept through Gamla Stan.

Fall has arrived. All the people I meet, when they hear I'm from California, apologize about the weather. But today was clear and good for walking, after yesterday's downpour in Riga. After the terrible storm on the ferry, where I fled from the sauna in the front of the boat as 3 meter waves crashed into us.
Are the Swedes the happiest people so far? Stockholm is by far the biggest city I've been in, with a population of nearly 1 million. Stockholm has an undeniable energy and vibrancy. 

The architecture on a grand scale says "we were a wealthy kingdom, and now we're a prosperous democracy." In that regard, it reminds me of Vienna. As with all the stops on this happiness tour, I wish I had more time here. But I'll make the most of it tomorrow. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

from Riga with love

Riga should be similar to Tallinn--it's quite close, and the Baltic states share a lot of history.
But the vibe, even in old town Riga, is completely different.
The language is different too. Latvian is closely related to Lithuanian, whereas Estonian is close to Finnish.

Architecturally it's blessed, with lots of red brick and elegant, decorative Art Nouveau.
Saturday night, packs of weekenders descended on Riga to drink themselves silly. So I headed out of the old town to avoid them hungover and the cruise ship hordes who'd docked for the day.
It wasn't hard to do. I walked a few blocks away from the Old Town.

I stopped in at The World of Hat (sic) and admired their collection of hats and shoes from around the world. These top ones are Latvian. The bottom Lithuanian.
And more hats from the Costume Museum.

I got a terrible box seat for the ballet, which was good for people watching. Latvians dress up for the ballet, especially children. The matrons definitely did not approve of my casual leggings and shoes. (Note to self: wear pearls to opening night at the Danish Symphony.)

Food is excellent here, with a wide spread of prices. But the service lacks the caring attention I found so endearing in Estonia. 
Today I visited the Riga Ghetto Museum. This is not a happy part of recent history, so perhaps it was appropriate in the pouring rain. 
In the 1880s, the Czar banished Jews from St. Petersburg and Moscow, dispersing city people east into the so-called Pale of Resettlement, unfarmable land in the middle of nowhere. 
In 1906, Russia and China fought a war that required more troops, and many citizens were ordered to report for duty. 

Jews who were able to leave did, like my great-grandfather Morris Finkelstein, who stowed aboard a ship from Riga to New York at the age of 19 or 20. I felt some dread, walking through the market to the museum.
Life under Soviet occupation had been no picnic. At the start of WWII, nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Latvia, half in Riga. Today, there are less than 7000 Jews in the country. 
When Nazis arrived in 1941-2, the brutality was ratcheted up. 25,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto were taken to the forest and massacred in 3 days. 
But mostly Riga was a waystation for Czech, Hungarian, and Belarusian Jews on their way to Auschwitz.
What surprised me most in these exhibits was the innocent things families carried with them: bedrolls and satchels, as if they'd be home soon.
In an exhibit of lanterns remembering the dead, I was moved by the cheerful letters prisoners of the ghetto wrote to friends and family, begging for shoes, or cigarettes or jewelry which could be traded for favor.


The donations are mostly dollar bills. The great majority of descendants of European Jews left for America, Canada, and other parts of the world before the wars. Had they not, we would likely have met the same fate.
I asked the quizzical man at the museum if these buildings had been a railway station. No, he said, this wasn't where the selections occurred. The Riga ghetto was farther away—not a good neighborhood then or now. He said he they'd placed the memorial there, few tourists would make the journey. So instead it's near the market, where vendors were selling mushrooms and berries and plums.

I'm writing this from my cabin on the Isabelle, bound for Stockholm! I broke down and took a taxi to the port because of the pouring rain.

But I received the ultimate compliment from the Russian taxi driver, impressed I spoke his language. Bolshoi spaciba. See you on the other side.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

across the countryside

There are two ways to get from Tallinn to Riga, Latvia without a car. One is to take Lux Bus for 10–20 euros, plug in your headset, watch a movie, or take a nap for 4 1/2 hours. The other is the Tallinn to Riga shuttle bus tour which takes 11 hours and includes stops in villages, forests, and an Olympic bobsled track.
Six of us from Indonesia, Norway, and the UK piled into a comfy van with our local driver–guide Triin, who gave us a crash course in Estonian history.

Kind of primeval setting, along the riverside
First stop: the town of Viljandi, gorgeously restored and most famous for hosting the annual folk music festival.
Triin: This really is Game of Thrones.

It was raining, but we were lucky to have blue skies for an easy hike in Sietinizis National Park, along the sandstone cliffs.
Along the trail were mushrooms including chanterelles and some Triin thought were poisonous.
The park is enormous and includes several towns. It was really peaceful to take a walk in the woods.

Cool trees with moss
Wherever you are, a walk in the forest is good for what ails you.
 Next it was on to lunch and then the Soviet Military park.
This is a weird and fascinating place, with sculptures made of old bombs and recruiting posters and lots of mannequins in uniforms.

Triin kept us spellbound with the story of the Soviet Union invading Estonia during World War II, after 20 years of freedom.
Then the Nazis arrived and compared to the Soviets, they actually looked good. For centuries, Estonians and Latvian had been enslaved as serfs, occupied by empires that exported their food and left peasants to starve, and punished any form of dissent.
Triin's great-grandparents were deported to Siberia, her great-grandmother summoned in the middle of the night with three daughters and put on a cattle car in 1949. Somehow they survived. Most Estonians didn't. They returned to Estonia, not sure if their home or village remained. And nearly ten more years later, her great-grandfather returned too. 
Reunited, they lived happy lives, she said. They even lived long enough to see Estonia free again, in 1991, in a bloodless revolution, united by song and a belief in their own destiny. I guess anything is possible.

"We were the battle ground of someone else's war, as always," Triin commented.

Taylor Swift recruiting soldiers to join the Estonian reserves? 

One of many symbols of Estonia, many borrowed from neighboring countries. For the moment, Estonia enjoys extraordinary prosperity, EU membership, eurozone, the prestigious presidency of the EU. And next year the centenary of the first free Estonia.

We cross the border into Latvia (no longer barricades or passport stamps, since Latvia and Estonia are part of the Schengen area), making a short stop in the medieval town of Cesis. 
 The sun even came out and blessed us with a rainbow.

Latvia, while not extremely religious, has a distinct Lutheran presence.
 There's a beautifully preserved castle and this bizarre Germanic manor, with a turreted tower.

And saving the best for last, we stopped off in Sigulda at the former Soviet bobsled track, built as a practice ramp for the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984. Yes, that's the bottom down there.

Imagine racing down on an icy, winding track at 130 kph! A Georgian athlete was there practicing, though we didn't get to see him speed down.
 Or just watch Cool Runnings again and stay cool.

A few more trees and moss as we say goodbye to the countryside. 
After a long, wonderful journey, I've arrived in Old Town Riga for the next 48 hours. It's Saturday night and the town is buzzing. Just as I'd gotten used to Tallinn, here we are in another country, another language, a different culture.
Breathe deep and inhale the rich scent of chanterelles and apple trees and birch. Remember what this land and these people have been through the last 700 years. The last 70 even. No one in the early 90s, hungry, captive, willing to risk their lives for independence, could have imagined today's Estonia. What's possible in the next 25?