Monday, June 30, 2014


On Sunday, June 22, our ship sailed into Helsinki, Finland.  It was a cool day and we set off to see Senate Square and the Sibelius Monument.  Plenty of tourists were in town with us but that didn’t spoil the beauty of this lovely city or its downtown outdoor market.  Our bus parked in an enormous sloped square surrounded by impressive government buildings and a church and we walked from there to the market.

The market was one part local flavor, literally.

The Finns, like the other nations this far north, are justifiably proud of the berries they grow in the sunlight of their long days.

There were also some stalls with the usual tourist fare.

But there were also stands with homemade crafts, including jewelry and some lovely, bright dresses for little girls. 

The drive to the Sibelius monument was lovely, though the park and monument themselves were quite crowded.  I made a picture anyway.

Then we boarded our bus and headed north of the city, to the preserved medieval town of Porvoo, Finland’s second oldest city.  Porvoo was about 50 km northeast of Helsinki, so we got the chance to see more neighborhoods in the city of Helsinki (lovely and so incredibly clean) and also the Finnish countryside.

Porvoo was charming from our first sighting, made as we walked across the bridge that leads to town.

The cobblestoned streets of the town were filled with well-maintained buildings and shops.  Our guide explained that the Finns built their homes with wood because of the abundance of forests in Finland.  Once again, the homes and shops were painted with the lovely pastel colors I had come to expect in this corner of the world.

We walked about, checked out some shops (the candy store was a favorite) and generally soaked in the atmosphere of charming Porvoo.

Our final stop of the day was back in town to see the Church of the Rock.  Outside the church was a lovely neighborhood.

Over and over, I was struck by the fact that the Scandanavian nations seem to have struck a balance between enjoying urban life and also ensuring that there is a civility to their busy cities.  The streets and sidewalks are incredibly clean; the buildings are well-maintained.  Wherever possible, there has been an effort to landscape and beautify the sidewalks and courtyards.  The people are friendly and in the hours I spent in these cities I heard just one honking of a horn.  That’s happy!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Of White Nights and Green Plants

The northern European nations enjoy gloriously long sunlit days in the summer.  We were there for the apex of those long days, a holiday the Scandanavian nations call St. John’s Day.  The Russians call it White Nights and, no matter what it’s called, the sunlight really was splendid.  Twilight is nearly always my favorite time of day because the light is so lovely, soft with the saturated color of the season.  In summer, with so many green plants and blooms, the colors make twilight even more beautiful.  And the twilights of the season of white nights were even more impressive to behold.

I enjoyed these lingering twilights all the nights that I was traveling.  On our first night, in Copenhagen, we took the boys to Tivoli Garden after 9 pm and things were still quite light outside.

I also made some photos of the light in the sky as we left St. Petersberg on the evening of June 21st.  These photos were made looking on the Baltic Sea looking out at the the Gulf of Finland at 11 pm and it’s pretty obvious why the Russians call it White Nights.

A side effect of this extended period of sunlight is that plants enjoy an exceptionally long growing day and so they grow quickly; some becoming quite large.  I was impressed with these hostas in a courtyard in Stockholm, Sweden.

The flowerbed had dahlia flowers blooming much earlier than they do in my part of the world.  The tour guide explained that people plant the bulbs indoors until the danger of deep cold has faded, setting them out in their gardens in early mid-May, where they soak in the light-filled days and begin to bloom in June.

An ivy display like this is the sort of thing I would really enjoy.  

Much as my trip to the Butchart Gardens in Vancouver set me on a path to a clematis vine of my own, I expect I will be working up some sort of ivy project in my garden as well.

It seems unfair that I was able to enjoy the rewards of these long northern days without having endured the dark winter days that are the opposite side of the season.  But enjoy them I did.  I’ve decided to treat it as the unexpected dividend of my own cold and dark winter.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Summer in a Vase

On one of the days that I mulched the garden my rosebushes had abundant flowers.  I picked a handful and placed them in a vase on the back deck to keep me company while I drank cold iced tea and daydreamed about the bouquets I will pick later this summer.

That’s happy!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Getting in to Mother Russia

Other than having our passports stamped as we entered Denmark from the Copenhagen airport and again as we departed the continent, we didn’t need to have our passports checked at any other ports on our trip.  But St. Petersberg, Russia, was different.

In fact, if passengers weren’t on tours booked by the cruise ship, we couldn’t enter Russia without seeking a visa several months in advance.  Large cruise ships packed with tourists dock a few miles from the center city along an expansive harbor.  Anywhere else in the world, the harbor might feature development for the wealthy.  Across the bay, there did seem to be expensive apartment buildings as well as new development.  

But the St. Petersberg harbor where cruise ships dock is lined with row after row of poorly maintained Soviet-style apartment housing in an unwelcoming shade of concrete grey, standing 20 and 30 stories with an appearance that warned they might collapse at any moment.  They looked unsafe on the outside, though they weren’t marked by graffiti and didn’t have the feel of extreme poverty so much as neglect.  There weren’t people milling about outside and the neighborhood seemed safe enough.  The view of the harbor were spectacular.

The Russian immigration and customs officials were just as one would expect: stern and not amused by us, asking questions in a careful English and not happy with our rapidly-spoken answers.  From the locked gates and exacting manner, you’d have thought that security was a great concern.  But while we waited for our document check, a young man opened the door to the the custom agent’s cage at our gate, stepped inside and gave her flowers and a kiss.  There was a broad smile for him before she turned our attention back to us with a stern face.

Returning to the ship was equally as confounding, with long lines and exacting review of our passports and the one-day visas they granted us before we were stamped back through the gates.

I had the feeling that having lived through centuries of oppressive rules and bureaucracy, the Russians delighted in showing the rest of the world what useless rules felt like.  Fair enough, Russia, but it doesn’t really help your cause.  And it costs you money to staff this operation, which doesn’t add a whit to your safety or your national treasury.

Your country, your rules and all that, but I found it mystifying and not a little weird.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Sassafras Approved Code of International Travel

Note:  When I am back home, I will have more pictures and reflections on my visits to Russia, Finland and Sweden.  Until then, I offer these thoughts. 

The cruise ship on which we are sailing has more than 3500 passengers, many from the United States but loads from different countries in Europe or Asia.  Though I wouldn’t say we are smashed together (the ship is enormous and the staterooms are really nicely laid out), there are times when we must be together —— waiting to get on and off the ship for tours on land, the tours we took in port cities, the elevators on board the ship, dining, sharing the common spaces.  Despite my cheerful optimism that people can be expected to be good, kind, and polite toward one another, the fact is that the herd isn’t particularly well-behaved.  Let the record reflect the fact that blame attaches to all cultures.  

To ease difficulties and in pursuit of international accord, I propose a code of rules for travel abroad.  They apply to any person not in his or her home country.  We can ask the UN to arbitrate disputes (this would be something really useful for them to do) and issue judgments.  Everyone would be required to agree to the rules before passing through customs in a foreign land.  We could print little cards with the rules in a variety of languages and all of us could carry them in our passports in case we need a reminder of how to behave.

1.  Form a line; wait in it.
Instead of jamming together for exits and elevators, how about we neatly form a line (first come, first served) and wait in it?  No pushing, no shoving, no chattering in your native tongue in an aggressive fashion.  Just get in line, shut your mouth,  and wait your turn.

It goes without saying that those who attempt to cut in line will be summarily dispatched.  Bet I shall say it anyway: those who attempt to cut in line will be summarily dispatched.

2.  Keep moving.
When you have successfully passed through an entrance or exit, do not stop and stand in front of the doorway.  Keep moving so that the line may continue its progress.

3.  Stay to the right.
In crowds (where crowd equals more than 1 person), stay to the right.  I realize this may cause confusion for those of us who drive to the left, but these are international rules and I am the creator…..stay to the right and keep moving.

4.  Government authorities, no matter how bureaucratically ridiculous, must be obeyed.
In Russia, where we had to pass through customs to exit and enter the ship, some of the ship’s passengers (mostly American, by the way) got very testy, thus slowing an already absurdly slow process.  Combined with our failure to simply wait in a fucking line, the Americans infuriated the Russians (hint: bad idea) and made life difficult for the rest of the passengers.  Sure, the Russian rules were ridiculous and unprofitable, but these are the people who lived through Stalin, the siege of Leningrad and run Siberian prison camps to this day.  For Pete’s sake, get in line, shut your mouth and follow their rules.  

Having done so successfully, you may then complain bitterly.

5.  Bathe daily; use deodorant.
I realize that the rest of the word finds the American preoccupation with washing to be strange.  Say what you will, world, but the honest truth is that the rest of y’all stink.  Badly.   You smell like the nasty corners of New York City and it is frankly unpleasant.   We can smell you everywhere and we judge harshly.

International rules demand that in locations with running water, you must wash with soap on a daily basis.  Wash your whole body.  Then apply deodorant.  This is not optional.

6.  Behave yourself on elevators.
Don’t shove.  Stay to the right and let passengers exit before you cram on board.  When you exit the elevator, keep moving and don’t block the way for others who wish to exit or enter.  Should the elevator be full, be gracious and understand that everyone on board is inconvenienced.  Those of you in the front of the elevator should aid the people in the back of the lift who wish to exit by stepping off yourself to let them out.  Those of you in the back of the elevator should announce your need to  exit when your stop arrives; don’t just push your way out.  And remember that this is one of those times when adherence to Rule #5 can really make a difference.

That’s it.  It’s a simple code of 6 easy-to-follow rules that will make life better for travelers everywhere.  Virtually every time that I was in a crowd of people, I found myself understanding just why it is that world wars occurred.  My simple code may not bring about world peace but surely it won’t damage the cause.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How the Other Half Lived

In St. Petersberg, Russia, our tours ensured that we see mile after mile of opulent buildings constructed for the pleasure of the Tsars and their royal, privileged relations.  We toured Catherine the Great’s summer palace at night after the crowds had dissipated and were welcomed by a band.

The splendor of the outside was matched by the inside.

Catherine Palace was used as a summer palace and the countryside around it was pretty with broad views and big sky; I was once again reminded of the American midwest.  Of course, in the midwest the view around the corner is of another cow and maybe a barn.  In this countryside, the view was considerably more impressive.

Catherine had an entire room lined with Baltic amber.  That room was lost during WWII but we had a chance to see a faithful reproduction.  

This palace, like most of St. Petersberg, was built by people whom our guide referred to as “free labor.”  They were serfs, of course, and it’s not hard to believe that they would demand some changes to this system.  The realization that the revolution which brought down the Tsars brought them a whole other form of oppressive rule is its own tragedy.  But that’s a story for another day.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Pastel Beauty

The next stop on our tour of Europe was Tallinn, Estonia.  Estonia is tucked against Russia on the Baltic Sea, one of three nations between Russia and the West that often felt the pressure of the bully that is Russia.  Unlike Lithuania and Latvia, it’s immediate western neighbors, Estonia has fared quite well since the fall of communism.  The Estonians left the USSR in 1991, joined the European Union, and never seem to have looked back.

The nation has just over a million people and 400,000 of them live in the capital, Tallinn.  During the Cold War, with the aid of antennas and ingenuity, they had access to Finland’s media and with a language that bears some similarity to Finnish, they therefore had some limited exposure  to the western world, access that seems to have paid off as they now enjoy a stable capitalist economy and parliamentary democracy housed in this lovely pink building that was once Toompea Castle, a 13th century stone fortress.

The city of Tallinn is built on the side of the hill overlooking the Baltic Sea harbor with over 1000 years of history still well-preserved in its streets.  From the buildings first constructed when the Danes conquered the land to the buildings made when the Hanseatic League took their turn ruling Estonia, there is beauty on every corner.

We started our walking tour of the city in a section of the Upper Town at the cobblestoned road in front of the Parliament building (and what nation wouldn’t benefit from a pink parliament building?).  There was an active Russian Orthodox Church across the road, one that started life as a Catholic Church, spent some time as a Lutheran house of worship and is now in the hands of the Russia Orthodox faith and called Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  When we arrived, the bells were chiming and the Patriarch came out on steps strewn with flowers as the congregation prepared to celebrate a mass that seemed to be more than the regular service, though our tour guide was mystified as too which holiday it could be.

Later, we were permitted to quietly enter the church as the congregation was involved in the service.

The cobblestone streets were beautiful, as were the preserved buildings that lined them.

From the Upper Town, where the nobles once lived, we could view the walls and insides of the Lower Town, which once housed the merchant class.

We stepped down the steep cobblestone walks to the Lower Town where we saw buildings in both the Hanseatic and Scandanavian style, all painted lovely pastel shades of blue, green, salmon, yellow, and pink.  

Much of the narrow galley walkways and gates of the original Old Town are still preserved.

Our tour guide explained that while Estonians had struggled under Soviet rule, they’d had centuries of occupation in their history, occupations where they had learned to preserve Estonian ways despite German, Danish, and Swedish rulers of varying tolerance.  The brief independence and self-rule they enjoyed at the start of the 20th century seems to have prepared them well for life as a modern European state, one that appreciates and preserves its history.

I made more than 150 pictures in Tallinn.  There was beauty everywhere in this gem on the Baltic Sea. That's happy!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Incident Report #2

There is a basketball hoop on ship and JT played a few pick-up rounds with his cousins when we boarded the ship on Saturday.  S, at 6 ‘ 5”, is rather good at the game, and JT got schooled pretty quickly.  Not one to give up hope, on Sunday morning JT took himself to the hoop at the very top of the ship for some practice.  I was in the room when he returned and as soon as he came in the door and said hello I knew from the tone in his voice that something was wrong.

Turns our I was right.

In an effort to secure his own rebound, he rushed the net at the edge of the court, not realizing that there was a metal pole contained within.  When pole met face, the pole prevailed.  There’s a few scrapes and a quite impressive black eye.  When people ask what happened he says Vikings and then shakes his head ruefully.  

T, informed of the incidents thus far , including the key and shoe my nephew lost (but eventually found), suggested that for the next vacation we check the boys into a kennel.  She figured that with a bowl of ketchup and another of Gatorade they’d be fine.  Not to mention safer.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Back in the GDR

On Tuesday, we sailed into Germany.  The ship rolled into the port of Warnemunde, a small city in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, land that was part of East Germany after World War II.   We chose a tour to see a medieval town, church, and castle.  We did see those things and they were amazing.  But it was the remnants of communism that I found most fascinating.

Our tour guide, Tom, was an English teacher who had grown up in the region.  He was in his late 40s, old enough to have grown up under communism and therefore in his 20s when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989.  As we drove through the countryside (lovely… looks a lot like the American midwest), headed to Rostok and Schwerin, towns first build in the 1200s, he showed us the fading signs of the recent communist past.  

He explained that we were driving on roads that were mostly new, having been built after 1989.  East Germany had an epic car shortage (you could get on the waiting list at age 18 but the wait was 25 years) and so western cars were highly desired.  The first thing people did when the wall collapsed was cross the border to the Federal Republic of Germany to buy a used car, which they then drove back to the eastern territory only to realize that there weren’t nearly enough roads.  And so West Germany built roads between towns to help modernize the East.

There was the McDonalds that opened within months of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which he jokingly called “the American Embassy. “  Then he explained that at the time it was the first Western experience he could remember in his lifetime.  He showed us the wall between the sea and the city of Rostok, a wall the prevented the citizens from going to the harbor and trying to escape.  He explained that apartment buildings built by the Soviets in the aftermath of WWII once featured Stalinist style (all the same, all shaded a dirty grey from the smoke generated by burning coal for heat).  Since 1989, they have been slowly renovated with additions to distinguish them from one another.  We saw roof gardens, window flower boxes, lovely muted pastel colors, and buildings that had only a glimmer of their identical past.  In some towns, the post-Soviet period meant that old places of historical value could once-again be restored and their history noted.  For example, in Rostok he showed us this ornate doorway, now restored to look as it did when the Burger of Rostok issued coin money in this yellow building 700 years ago.

Tom also explained other elements of German history ignored in the Soviet period.  Castles like the one we saw in Schwerin were neglected and allowed to deteriorate while the communists ruled.  Since 1989, they have been renovated so that their splendor and history can once again be appreciated.

We saw this as well in the St. Mary’s Church in Rostok, first built in 1200.  It is still consecrated so I refrained from taking pictures of the inside, which is slowly being restored to splendor, having barely survived the Allied bombing at the end of WWII (the blocks from the north to the harbor were destroyed in the war).

Though I know why it is that one of our most powerful associations with the Germans is the horror of WWII, I was struck by how impressively this divided nation reunited in 1989.  From new roads to renovated buildings and a renewed understanding of their own history, the East German world has been reorganized and made whole in the past 25 years.  The people here show a powerful appreciation of their history, embracing all the things lost to them while the Soviets controlled their lives.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


On Sunday, the ship sailed up the fjord that brings one to Oslo harbor.  I expected Norway to look a lot like Denmark but I was mistaken.  Like Denmark, it was clean and the people were incredibly friendly; English seemed to be spoken everywhere.  Unlike Denmark, it was much more hilly with loads of trees, including pine forests with thick green undergrowth.  The sail up the fjord featured the most lovely views under an amazing blue sky.

Lots of the homes and churches we saw were painted a crisp white with red tile roofs, much like this building in the harbor.  We couldn’t decide if this one was a school or a church but it was awfully charming.

Just across from the ship’s dock was a medieval fort built in 1100 that eventually became a castle with extensive grounds.  

Downtown, the buildings were lovely, in a variety of soft colors,  though it was a Sunday and most were closed.

We had a tour which took us through the city to a number of sights.  At the Viking ship museum, we saw preserved sailing vessels.

We drove up the mountain to see a ski jump.  My picture didn’t turn out, but let’s just say that it was steep and shiny and quite impressive.  Having watched plenty of Olympics, I know that the Norwegians love their skiing sports and given the tour guide’s descriptions of the Norwegian winters, I guess that’s a good thing.

Having spent 5 months in the snow and even longer with winter sunlight that lasts less than 7 hours a day, the Norwegians clearly enjoy the 18 hours of sunshine the summer brings.  There were loads of people soaking up the sun in the Vigeland Sculpture Garden that we visited.

All in all, Oslo was a charming city in a beautiful nation.