Heading Back to America

It’s hard to believe that we arrived in Budapest last April and now in a heart beat, we are reaching the end of our European adventure.  It has certainly gone by too fast for us.  We have learned so much about the culture, history, and day-to-day lives of the people in places we have stayed – Hungary, Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany, and Sweden. Along the way we also learned more about ourselves, our marriage, and what retirement means to us.  Throw in a few pleasant, but unexpected events,  and I would conclude that this has been a perfect trip.

We hardly knew what to expect when we sold the Austin condo last year and began planning this adventure. There have been some pleasant surprises on this adventure and one or two that we would like to forget – like my cell phone dying!    I have asked Clay to add to my list of surprises on this trip; here is a short list of our biggest surprises.

  1.  First on both our lists was the fact that we have not been homesick.  Sure, we missed our friends and family , but after almost 5 month on the road, we certainly could continue onward if we had not made other commitments back in the U.S.
  2.  Costs – we have consistently spent less each month than we had budgeted .I think that this is partly due to us staying a month at a time in several locations, so we got a break on rent. When possible, we rented an apartment with a kitchen, so we ate one or two meals a day at home, which held down food costs.  Budapest (especially) was incredibly low cost.
  3. Another surprise (that should not have been) is the fact that we have spent a lot more time together on the road than we do at home.  When at home we both have more interactions with our friends through our various clubs and organizations that we belong to.  My advice is – if you are not married to your best friend, then you might want to take this into consideration before setting out on an extended trip.
  4. Other people might be surprised by this, but we got along great the whole time. We occasionally had a few cross words, but we both value love and honesty, so we don’t let pride build small misunderstandings into something bigger.

As we prepare to head back to the U.S., we are looking forward to spending some time with family before settling back in Austin for a few months.  We have rented a place in downtown Austin beginning September 25th for a few months.  This will give us time to plan our next adventure. We don’t know for sure where that journey will take us, but if anything it’s like this one, it will not be boring.

 

Heading Back to America

Gothenburg

Maggie and I worked in a couple of days in Gothenburg to see our friend and former co-worker, Aleks Niemand. We had a great time; it’s always enlightening to see a city through the eyes of a local: you not only get the food, history and culture, but you get a view into peoples’ daily lives, which you don’t get from Tripadvisor or the Hop On / Hop Off Bus.  I think and Aleks and Maggie are enjoying themselves!

alex

Gothenburg is on the west coast of Sweden, a three-hour trip on the express train. With a population of over 500 thousand, it’s about half the size of Stockholm. They city is laid out along the seacoast, with the Gothia River running through the middle of it. It’s smaller and more relaxed than Stockholm, but there’s still plenty to do. There was an international cultural festival going on while we were there, so the streets were filled with people, music, art and food from all over the world.

The art museum has one of the more eclectic collections we’ve seen. It’s laid out by country of origin rather than being organized by year or by style, so French art is in this room, Dutch art there, and so on. It leads to some interesting mixtures, with modern sculptures placed with Art Nouveau paintings, but it seems to work.

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We only spent a couple of days in Gothenburg, which was not nearly enough to do everything we wanted: we saw the food market, but not the fish market; we only saw the south bank of the river, but were told that the north shore is also well worth the visit. Volvo was founded in Gothenburg, and we heard that the Volvo Museum was worth a visit. Certainly with so much to see and explore in Gothenburg, we definitely will be back.  An added bonus is that our friend Aleks lives there and we get to see him again.

archclay along waterfrontGothenburg harbor

 

 

 

 

Gothenburg

Stockholm Favorites

Here’s a quick summary of our favorite places, sites and features of Stockholm:

Archipelago – We only visited two of the many islands: Fjäderholmarna and Vaxholm; both offered a different view of the history and people of Sweden. Vaxholm has an ancient fort that is now a museum. We ate a traditional herring dish at Hamnkrogen, which is a good place to hang out and see what the locals are doing. On Fjäderholmarna, we saw what Stockholmers do on their days off: find as much sunshine as possible. We discovered that even in those rustic surroundings, there is art everywhere; we also found that the Swedes are as crazy about their flag as Americans are.

City Hall – not a museum specifically, but there are sculptures, murals, architecture, and it’s the site of the annual banquet for the Nobel Prizes, so the tour is interesting.

Drottningholms Slott – the Queen’s Palace. We had just missed the start of the English language tour when we arrived, so we went off on our own (there is no audio guide) and regretted it. There are very few signs in English, so for much of the time we stared at stuff that might have been significant, but we didn’t know why. The gardens are supposed to be worth a good look, but it was windy and rainy that day, so we didn’t see much of them. We would have gotten more out of the trip if we’d planned a little better, but sometimes you just have to go when you can and make the best of it.

Fika – the mid-afternoon coffee break that includes all sorts of desserts: cheesecake in all of its forms, carrot cake, strawberry rhubarb pie, endless variations of chocolate – and some we hadn’t seen before, like Princess Cake.

Princess Cake

Fotografiska – the Photography Museum. As far as we know, there are no permanent exhibits at the museum; when we were there, the highlights were Nick Adams and Brian Adams. We also liked the Greta Garbo pictures, taken or collected by a life long friend. The cafe at Fotografiska has been called the best museum cafe in the world. That may be true, not only for the food and atmosphere, but the spectacular view of Stockholm. This is also the only museum we’ve been to that’s open until 1:00 AM on Thursday nights.

Historiska Museet – the Swedish History Museum. A thorough introduction to the history of Sweden, from prehistoric times to the present. There’s an extensive exhibit on the Vikings:, with plenty of material on sailing and battles, but also a fair amount of cultural information, too. For instance, I never realized that the Vikings had converted to Christianity, or had done such amazing jewelry.

Nobel Museet – the Nobel Museum. There’s a lot of information on the Nobel Prizes and the winners. In our view, there was too much effort spent on humanizing the laureates, but not enough telling what they did, why it was significant, or how why they stood out among their peers.

People – Swedish people aren’t generally effusive, but they do have a deep sense of kindness, which translates to tolerance and fairness when dealing with others. We experienced that ourselves as sometimes confused foreigners and random people would stop what they were doing to set us straight. Statistically, it shows up in the current refugee crisis: Sweden has taken in more refugees per capita than any other country: 400,000 with a population of 9.5 million. (Germany has taken in a million refugees for a population of 80 million; the U.S. contribution is paltry by comparison.)

Pride Week – the whole city of Stockholm turned out for Pride Week. There were rainbow flags everywhere: restaurants, stores, hotels, even city buses. The Pride Parade went on for hours, which it needed to, since tens of thousands participated and hundreds of thousands watched. There was a little bit of everything in the parade: Stockholm police and fire departments, the American Ambassador to Sweden, the Swedish Army (singing Y-M-C-A), gay Jews, gay Muslims, even a rainbow Viking boat. Locals told us that there really isn’t a “gay scene” in Stockholm because they are so integrated into day and night life, there isn’t any need for one.

Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde – the house, collection and art studio of Prince Eugens, a pretty good amateur painter who just happened to be a prince, so he got to paint what he wanted, including a mural in City Hall. The top floor was devoted to his studio, which of course had perfect lighting and tons of space. The temporary exhibit was about Swedish female plein air painters of the late 19th century: their art, their lives and their struggles.

Restaurants –  we can’t try to do a thorough review of the best restaurants in Stockholm. For one thing, we tried to hold down costs by eating in the apartment for two meals a day (mostly breakfast and supper). We liked our local Thai place, Hang Chow for good food, fast service and low prices; Vau De Ville (near the Opera) has a nice selection of traditional Swedish and other food; Gnarly Grill for the wait staff, plus a decent variety of bar food and draft beers; Ciao Ciao for Italian food, low prices and the cabbage salad that Maggie loved; Pesso Bageri, our local bakery – and while we’re at it, Gelateria Italiana across the street. There are many, many others; we haven’t even scratched the surface.

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Skansen –  the world’s oldest open-air museum, devoted to the history, culture and animals of Scandinavia, with the emphasis on Sweden. We spent several hours there, and came away with a better appreciation of the country.

Transportation – we loved the public transportation; no need for a car, just buy a monthly pass and use the subway, buses and trams to get anywhere in the city. The whole network fits together well, so you can go from bus to subway to intercity train with a minimum of walking between stops and waiting for the next departure. Walking is also not a problem, since there are relatively few cars on the road for a city this size and drivers respect the pedetrian right of way. (Watch out for those bicycles, though – mopeds and scooters can ride in the bike lane, so you have to look carefully before crossing the bike path.)

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Vasa Museet – museum of the Vasa, a sailing ship that sunk in 1628, mostly due to poor design: it was built too narrow and with two rows of guns, so the lower gun ports took on water in light seas. They knew that before it sailed, but it was needed for the war with Denmark, so it was pressed into service anyway. When the Vasa sailed out on its maiden voyage with all of its gun ports open, the crowds of people on the shore watched in horror as it sank within a few hundred yards off shore. The ship laid on the bottom for more than 300 years until it was recovered, remarkably intact because the Baltic Sea isn’t salty enough to be a good habitat for shipworm; otherwise it would have been devoured by then.

So there you have it – the highlights of the month we spent here. There’s a lot left to see and do, but we need to get back. For a lot of the places we’re seeing, Maggie and I think that this may be our last visit, but we hope that’s not the case for Sweden.

Stockholm-5.jpg

Stockholm Favorites

Stuff Swedish People Like

Actually, we’ve only been to Stockholm, so these might be a little slanted, but here are some of our observations.
1. Wearing shorts on sunny days, even when it’s chilly and breezy.
2. Sitting, standing, walking or running in the sun. We get lots of sun at home, so we treat sunshine like it’s an alien death ray, but Swedes get out into the sunshine at all possible opportunities.
3. Lingonberries! You can get lingonberry jam, lingonberry juice, lingonberries as a side dish – any way you like ‘em. I had never heard of them before – they’re kind of like cranberries. We’re definitely converts.
4. Strawberries – the strawberries are small, but there’s as much flavor in one of them as there is in a box of Whole Foods strawberries.
5. Not driving cars: at rush hour the buses are packed and the bicycle lanes are crowded, but there are almost no cars on the road. I keep looking around for Rod Serling.
6. Fatherhood – there are dads everywhere: pushing strollers in the park, getting an ice cream with the kids, patiently explaining museum exhibits.Part of this is due to the Swedish law that fathers have to share in parental leave, but they clearly carry their obligations above and beyond the legal minimum, and do so enthusiastically.
7. LGBT people. The whole city turned out for Pride Week: the city buses flew rainbow flags, tens of thousands of people attended the parade, it was amazing. Local gays say that there really isn’t a gay scene, because they are so integrated with the community there’s no need for one.
8. Americans – if you see somebody with the Stars and Stripes on their t-shirt, hat or pants, chances are that they’re Swedish. Most people we’ve met speak a little English, and it’s usually with an American, not a British accent. Maggie and I feel very welcome here, like few other places we’ve been.
Stuff Swedish People Like

The New Berlin

Maggie and I had been to the “old” Berlin – she in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, then both of us right after, in 1991. Maggie remembers East German soldiers everywhere: in the train stations, guarding monuments, patrolling the streets. In 1991, we saw bullet holes in walls, leftovers from WWII and the shadow of the East German logo on walls, which had been up for 50 years and only pulled down recently. We remember Berlin as an intense city; everything on edge, everyone at the limit of what they could tolerate and still function. Berliners did their best to cover up the stress with humor: painting the Wall, inventing sarcastic names for city landmarks, but still the tension showed through.

Berlin today has a totally different vibe; and with only one week we discovered a new Berlin much to our liking – upbeat, modern architecture, museums, art galleries, and the beautiful 18th Century Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol to all Berliners and visitors of the reunification of East and West Berlin. They haven’t covered up the past, they’ve included it in the cityscape. There is a monument to the victims of the Holocaust that covers a city block; an entire museum is devoted to the horrors of the Nazi and Communist secret police. There are monuments that show the former sites of churches and synagogues. The former site of Hitler’s bunker is marked with a plaque (there’s an apartment building there now). The path of the Berlin Wall is marked on the ground as it winds through town. The emphasis, though, is on living today. In the heart of town, on Potsdammer Platz, there was a week-long festival called Berlin Queer Days. Brandenburg Gate was the backdrop for an outdoor music festival. Many of the Brutalist concrete buildings that were thrown up after the war have been pulled down and replaced with modern architecture.

Brandenburg Gate

This stop was special for Maggie and me because we got a chance to spend time with family and friends: Maggie’s brother and sister-in-law Paul and Susan shared our apartment for a few days, which we had planned months in advance. A short time before we left, our friends Kirby and Maureen  asked for advice on where to go in Europe; we told them we’d be in Berlin, why don’t they meet us there, and they took us up on it. Naturally, knowing Paul and Susan were going to be there and that we were all political junkies and yellow dog Democrats was a big incentive, too. We all had a great time, and got along just like Maggie and I thought we would. We’re all more or less the same age and the same political persuasion, so we had a good time talking politics and trashing the other side.

Traveling with other people is a treat, because you do things that you might not have otherwise. Because of Kirby and Maureen, we caught a free show of live music at the Brandenburg Gate. Paul and Susan wanted to go to Potsdam, which Maggie and I had never seen, so we got a look at the Bridge of Spies, where spies and other prisoners were exchanged between East and West during the Cold War. We also got to tour the complex that hosted the Potsdam Conference, where Britain, the U.S. and Russia decided the fate of post-War Europe.

Paul, Susan, Maggie and I shared a two-bedroom Air BnB apartment in the Sony Center.It’s a great location for convenience and access to metro lines, but a little noisy at times, with crowds of people in the huge central plaza and the streets around us. Typical for Germany, there was no air conditioning, so we had to leave the windows and front door open to get a breeze going in the afternoon. That probably isn’t an issue 51 weeks out of the year, but we happened to hit Berlin during a heat wave, so we had to put up with it. It got cool at night, so the heat wasn’t a big issue.

Paul and Susan are walkers and history buffs like us, so we had a good time exploring the city and learning more or German history. Once again, we saw how easy history is to learn for Americans, and how complicated it is for other countries. Now that we’ve spent a little time learning, we know a little more about The Reformation, the 30 Years War, and even their more recent history, which we were pretty familiar with.

Back on our own, Maggie and I went to the Olympic Stadium, scene of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The place is definitely impressive for its massive scale and utilitarian design. Today there are just a few reminders of the past, like the plaque showing the 1936 gold medal winners. Today it’s the home of the Berlin soccer team, and the pool is used by everybody.

The impression we came away with is that Berlin is a more complicated place than Americans typically give it credit for. It was the center of a world that is thankfully past, and also taking its place as a leader of a world to come. I would argue that because of its troubled history, Berlin is uniquely positioned to help the rest of the world fall into the extremism that might otherwise take hold. We would be wise to pay attention to Berliners’ take on current events.

The New Berlin

Dresden – Past and Present Glory

Everything you’ve heard about Dresden is true, and laid out for all to see, It’s a beautiful city; perhaps once more beautiful, but the ravages of time have taken their toll – especially the bombing by the British and Americans in 1945. Like a faded dowager, she covers her blemishes and goes out for a good time in the Alte Stadt (Old Town), never forgetting the past, but not allowing it to define her.

It’s not all about the past, though. Dresden is a young city too, with thousands of university students, several high tech companies, and all sorts of entertainment options, from fine dining to just sitting and watching people go by.  A great place to visit and see a lot of interesting people and street art is in the Neustadt District.  Maggie and I spent an entire day hanging out in what we called an “East Austin Look Alike” district.  We both loved the street art.

Transportation is easy; there are trams and buses everywhere, and the system is pretty easy to figure out. We had two trams that stopped a block from our apartment, and two buses that stopped two blocks away. Together they took us to Neue Stadt, Alte Stadt and to other places of interest, such as the Military History Museum.

We were surprised what a big deal Dresden had been in previous times. The  Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Gallery) has several first rate pieces and artists, including Raphael’s most famous painting, the  Sistine Madonna.

We’ve said this before, but we saw another example of how the Germans are dealing with their history. You’d be hard pressed to find a people that look at their past in this much detail. In Dresden, there is the Military History Museum, which discusses the causes and consequences of aggression throughout history. There are exhibits that go back to the middle ages, but a large part of the permanent exhibit space is devoted to the horrors of WWI and WWII. Because this is a military history museum, there is less attention given to the Holocaust, and more to military atrocities: the invasion of Poland, the bombing of Rotterdam, decimation of Eastern Europe – and of course, the fire bombing of German cities, with Dresden being the primary example. There’s a collection of artifacts: bombs, bullets, the wing of a P51 fighter, pinned up like it was torn from some giant insect. The emphasis of the museum is on the human experience of war: a sound wall of a battle, where shouts and screams seem to come from everywhere; helmets pierced by bullet holes; a door that opens to the smell of a trench. We came away crushed by the experience. You can’t go through this museum and come out feeling that war is just a tool that politicians can wield to suit their purposes.

Maggie and I had a unique opportunity to see life out of the tourist districts. We contacted a former coworker of mine, from AMD days many years ago. She hadn’t changed a bit, except she now had a husband and three children. You never saw such a happy family. The kids played outside, interacted with the adults, and generally acted like you wish your kids would act when they’re around other adults. They have a beautiful life on the outskirts of Dresden. We took the tram to the last stop, then walked a half mile through the woods to get to their house.  We were treated to an old fashioned barbecue with lots of German sausages and veggies, and a little schnapps afterwards.  I even had the chance to teach their son a little about building a fire. I hope I didn’t set his development back too far.

clay fire

 

Being in Germany, how could we pass on visiting the local Volkswagen factory?  They have a state-of-the-art auto plant, which VW calls the Transparent Factory, built in 2002 to build the Phaeton. You know it’s something new just walking up to the place. Inside, the major walls are all glass: floor to ceiling glass on the outer windows, there’s a glass wall separating the offices from the factory, even a glass silo of new cars waiting for delivery. It’s a long way from the Chevrolet factory we got to tour when I was about nine years old.

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Initially, we were disappointed to learn that the Phaeton production line has been shut down and being transitioned to a new model.  That disappointment was short-lived however, when we realized the tour would now take us directly to the factory floor, instead of viewing it from a a catwalk above.  The assembly line was spotlessly clean, with wood floors (not what we expected!) because they are quieter and more comfortable for the workers to stand on. The Transparent Factory is an assembly line, where completed modules are installed on the auto chassis and body. The car body is carried along the assembly line in a giant claw on wheels, that can be positioned so the auto worker doesn’t have to assume any uncomfortable positions to install an assembly. The body and chassis are “married” on a hydraulic jig, then roll down the line for final assembly and testing. We would have loved to have made photos, but sadly that was not allowed.

We came to Dresden with an uncomplicated set of preconceptions, but we came away with a better idea of what a multifaceted city it is. It goes back to what we had in mind for this trip from the beginning: to spend enough time in each place to get a better idea of its  subtleties. We wish we could see more of the world in this much detail, but with our limited time, we are going to take in as much as we can.

 

Dresden – Past and Present Glory

Oh, Cologne

If you don’t like big cities, you won’t like Cologne. We do, so we did. There’s a lot more to see and do than we could absorb in the few days that we were there.

Maggie and I are big history buffs, so we delved into a couple of history museums. We learned that Cologne has been part of The Roman Empire, The Frankish Empire, The Holy Roman Empire, the French Empire, the Prussian Empire, Germany, West Germany and now Germany again. (I’m using the spelling of the city name that we get from the French; it’s Köln in German, or Koeln if your keyboard doesn’t have an umlat.) Today the city is a mixture of old and new, existing side by side.

Cologne-5

The Germans we met encourage visitors to speak their language; maybe that’s partly because Cologne has been a part of so many different countries. There are lots of other reasons, as well: there are 90 million native German speakers in Europe, more than any other language. Germany has earned its place as one of the economic leaders on the continent. They are justifiably proud of that accomplishment, so they expect that visitors will give their language and culture the respect it deserves. You will find plenty of people  who can speak a little English, but you can’t assume that everybody is ready to carry on a conversation. You’ll be OK if you learn the basics: a simple greeting, please and thank you, and a few numbers will make things go a lot easier.

One thing you have to give the Germans credit for, they don’t hide from their history. Several cities have museums that are partly or completely devoted to the history of Nazism. The National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne is in the former Gestapo headquarters. It was an administrative building for thirty years after the war, until the trial of Kurt Lischka,  the head of the Cologne Gestapo raised public awareness of the history of the building. The resulting protests turned into a movement, and in 1979 the city and the national government voted to transform the building into a memorial, a museum, and a center where historians could study the history of the Nazis.

In the basement, here are cells where up to ten people at a time were held for interrogation and torture. This could go on for days, it might take weeks, or stretch into months. Up to ten people at a time were imprisoned in cells like this one:

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The walls are still covered in the original graffiti. The prisoners wrote with whatever they could find:  used coal, lipstick, even their own fingernails. They wrote their names, messages of encouragement to other prisoners, messages to their loved ones, drawings, diaries, calendars marking off the days, rants against their jailers – pretty much anything.  They wrote with no expectation that anybody but other prisoners would ever see their messages. The futility is heart-breaking, but at the same time, we were stirred by the tenacity of these people, to hang on to their humanity in the bleakest conditions.

There’s a yard out back, where executions were committed. The top floors house an in-depth study of the rise of National Socialism. The treatment of the Jews, Gypsies, gays, and other so-called “undesirables” gets a thorough description, both in large scale statistics and detailed histories of individuals.

The war itself doesn’t get a lot of space, because that’s not the focus of this museum. One large room shows the devastation that Germany caused and suffered during the war;  another smaller room describes the war’s after effects. As you walk down the last hall to the exit, the sound system automatically kicks in to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”. I needed that.

Cologne today is a new city, since 95% of it was destroyed in WWII by the British and American bombing raids, then rebuilt after the war, partly funded with billions of dollars in US aid. There are few old buildings that survived or were restored: churches, parts of the medieval wall and some artifacts left from the Romans. The central part of downtown is dominated by a shopping district that’s packed with tourists. I don’t know why. It’s the same high-end stores selling the same luxuries that you can find in every major American or European city – if all they’re going to do is buy unnecessary stuff, why do they go to Cologne, Prague, or Rome when flights to Las Vegas are so cheap? You might wonder if this is what the framers of the Marshall Plan had in mind when they were laying out the plans for the rebuilt city – but on the other hand, how can we deny the people of Cologne the right to remake their city according to their own needs?

We didn’t spend a lot of time shopping for clothes, but you gotta eat. After paying too-high prices in England, Scotland and Ireland, we were relieved to find that everything was back down to levels we were used to – sometimes even less. French and Italian wines were a deal; at home we try to keep the price of a bottle of wine in the $10 to $20 range. In Cologne, the 5€ (about $5.50) wines were pretty good,  and for 8€ we could get a bottle that was as good as we ever drink. The selection was great, and we got to try out some wines that we had never heard of.

As we were leaving, a giant outdoor festival was starting up that had venues all over the city. We got to see a little of the preparations before we left, enough to make us think that Cologne would be a good destination for a longer visit. That’s what we love about big cities: there’s always something going on, even if you don’t always get to take advantage of it.

 

 

 

Oh, Cologne