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


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!


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.


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






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.


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.)


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 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