Europe Summer 2017 – Take aways

The 90 days we spent in Europe this summer was an education beyond what we expected.  Here are our short list of “take aways ” from this summer’s experience.

  •  Norway is in our view the most beautiful country in the world.  We haven’t traveled to all countries obviously, but from the places we have been, Norway wins hands down.  Bergen and Alesund were great bases for seeing the Fjords of Norway, and the train ride from Oslo to Bergen was simply amazing!


  • The Baltic countries are inspiring: they have endured the most horrifying events over their history, but have emerged as members of the European Union and are thriving! Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – you provided us with a reminder on why travel is important as an education. You are amazing countries with incredible resiliency.  The birds escaping in this photo taken in Riga, Latvia, is to me symbolic of the Baltics escaping their past and moving onward to freedom.
  •  Copenhagen?  You stole our hearts.  No wonder you are ranked as the “happiest people in the world!  You get it.  Hygge – we are incorporating some of the things I observed in Denmark into my life here in Austin.  Never too old to learn new ways of doing things.


  • What an amazing way to see the U.S. from a different point of view.  Visiting other countries provides perspective, other viewpoints, and a chance to see how other countries have dealt with the same problems we’re having: some do it better, some worse.  Clay and I both understand that our lives somehow have changed, and for the better I might add.  You truly never see your home country the way others see it, but when got off the plane in NYC, we both looked at America from a slightly different perspective. We love you America – warts and all.  You still will forever be our first and mostly likely last love.

The big trip of 2017 is a wrap, but the education encourages us to go again in 2018, to see what other lessons are are awaiting us.   There is so much to learn.  We can’t wait!

Europe Summer 2017 – Take aways

Home, but Not

We’re back – no problems with the flights: in spite of the remnants of Hurricane Harvey still lingering in the area, the flights were as smooth as they could be. All the bad stuff went to the east of us.


We’re back in our “temporary” digs, that we’ve been renting from friends of friends for the last two years. It’s been great, but Maggie and I are ready to settle into our own place. We’re going to crank up the home search engine, and find some place that’s easy to take care of, easy to lock up and leave for a while, and easy on the budget, so we can do some more traveling.

Home, but Not

Farewell to Denmark

We head home today – the flight leaves here at 1:00 PM, we arrive in Austin at 9:30 tonight. It looks like most of the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are dumping on Houston, so Austin skies should be clear enough that our flight will be on time. We’re sad to be leaving – there’s still so much to see and do – but will be glad to be home, hang out with friends, and do what we can to help people in Austin dry out.

We’ve learned a lot this trip – a lot of it by not over-scheduling ourselves, but leaving time to hang out and have a conversation with the locals and with other travelers. (Going to places where most people speak English was a big help.) When we took a little time to relax, we could often find somebody else who was in the same mood, ready to share what they’d learned. In Denmark, this is all part of hygge (see the previous post) – but we found like-minded people everywhere we went, whether they had a word for it or not.


We found places where we could become short term regulars, and by coming back to the same places, we could continue conversations with the long term regulars and learn more about our surroundings. In Copenhagen, our local was the Trykbar, right around the corner from our AirBnB apartment. The staff and other customers were all open and willing to share what they knew, where to go, and what to not miss.


We’re already looking forward to the next trip – don’t know where or when it will be, but we’ll be sharing the experience, whatever it is.


Farewell to Denmark

Hygge (pronounced “HUE-gah”)

Hygge is actually very difficult to explain or define.  It roughly means creating a warm, cozy atmosphere, and the Danes excel at this from what I have observed.  Does it contribute to the report that names the Danish people as the happiest people on our planet?  We’re trying to find that out.

My first observation is about candles.  Candles?  I am not sure why exactly, but almost every restaurant, coffee shop, wine bar– even sports bars have candles burning from opening to closing time.  It created for me a warm feeling that even with the beautiful sunshine outside, coming inside to the glow of candles and fresh flowers created a relaxed, less tense atmosphere.

From reading about Hygge I learned that friends and family play a big part in hygge as well.   Just sitting around a table talking with friends and family about the small and big things going on in their lives generates hygge.  Can’t wait to hygge with family and friends upon our return to the U.S.

Probably the best article I found on Hygge was from the BBC Magazine.  Take a look at this article which I found very helpful for me to better understand what I am experiencing here in Copenhagen.

The photos below are just random photos taken on this trip that represent Hygge!  Forgive me for keeping this so short, but there are candles to light and Clay is finished with his blog inputs and time to Hygge.

Breakfast                                        Lunch

Even Happy Hour with beer and nachos

Hygge (pronounced “HUE-gah”)

Remembrance and Forgetting

Before they were called the U.S. Virgin Islands, the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John were Danish colonies. Denmark sold them to the U.S. in 1917, after having had possession of them for over 250 years. During their rule, the Danes, like other Europeans, decimated the populations of the Caribbean islands through war, disease and displacement. The Europeans found tropical paradises and turned them into plantations, churning out sugar cane and other crops on an industrial scale.

Like the other islands in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands had become a part of the Triangular Trade route, that miserable period of human history when European countries sent trinkets, cloth, guns and alcohol to the west coast of Africa, to be traded for human beings, who were sent to the Caribbean to work as slaves, working in the fields to put sugar on European tables. The same trade route brought African people to the future United States, to raise sugar, cotton and tobacco.


The Danes were no better and no worse than any other slave masters. The Middle Passage was a crime against humanity, no matter who was in charge. About 120,000 people were brought over in Danish-flagged ships, and that only counts the ones who survived the journey. Once they arrived, the newly enslaved people were treated the same: separation from family and culture, the indignities and confusions of being sold in a market, back-breaking work in abysmal conditions, disease, beatings, every scrap of their humanity ripped away. It’s no wonder their average life span on the plantations was less than 10 years.

Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1792 and emancipated the enslaved people in 1848. They can take some credit for being the first country to abolish kidnapping people to work the plantations, but that’s a small comfort. The final driver for emancipation was a massive revolt on St. Croix. Out of desperation, the Governor General declared all the people emancipated. As in the U.S., emancipation didn’t end the problems, but created a free but desperately poor underclass, a problem that would continue in various forms to the present day.

This year in Copenhagen, Denmark’s Royal Library has an exhibition of the art and photography of the Virgin Islands, starting with the maps and etchings made by the first Europeans. These brought more colonists, who made watercolor paintings of idyllic landscapes, showing beaches covered in white sand, lined by tall mountains. In the 19th century, the first photographs show portraits of smug plantation masters surrounded by potted plants and exhausted servants.


All of this jarringly displaced by hundreds of black and white photographs, taken when the islands were sold to the U.S. and the first travelers arrived with cameras, few preconceptions, and no need to support the current structure of island society. They took pictures of everything they saw: pretty beach scenes, people living in shacks; white people in clean clothes, black people in rags.


I’d like to report that the effect was devastating and there was an immediate call for aide to the poverty-stricken people of the new territories, but the fact is that in 1917, there wasn’t a lot of difference between poor blacks in the Virgin Islands and poor blacks in rural parts of the mainland U.S. The fact is that those conditions continued for a depressingly long period of time.

More recently, cheap air fare has helped a rise of tourism that has brought money and some relief to the islands, but no more visibility to the plight of the poor. The imagery from the islands has returned to a high tech version of the idyllic watercolors of the 18th century, only now the beaches are lined with high rise hotels and covered with white people lying in the sun, served by the descendants of the people who were brought there years ago. The conditions of the people have greatly improved, but that brief period of honest imagery isn’t even a memory for most. According to the exhibit, Danish schools teach the stories of the white heroes who freed the slaves, with little mention of what went on before.

That ties in pretty well with the current state of the history discussion going on in the U.S., where our attention is on the images of Confederate generals on pedestals, but we try to cover up the living conditions of real people today. We deny the undercurrent of racism that has always plagued the U.S. – not just in the South, but everywhere; not just in rural conservatives, but people who call themselves urban liberals as well. We all bear a part of this history, and pointing fingers doesn’t even begin to solve problems. We only can only begin by looking at ourselves with honesty, and giving others – all others – the respect they deserve.

Remembrance and Forgetting

Copenhagen – We made it

Flew to Copenhagen from Lithuania early Sunday morning.  (Note to self – don’t ever schedule a 6:30am departure again)   Arrived too early to check into our apartment so we took the short ride into town and stored our luggage at the train station.  Copenhagen (population 600K) is a large city, but very compact so we walked the entire central city to get acquainted with our home for the next 8 days! In our groggy state, we found ourselves unintentionally passing by the train station again and again. We joked that we  were probably being monitored on the security cameras, marked as potential troublemakers.

At 4:00PM sharp we were at the apartment with our luggage, and met the 2 sisters who gave us a map and a great overview of the city.  I fell in love with the dining room immediately!

dining room

After a visit to the grocery store for breakfast supplies and the local wine store, we were ready for the Copenhagen visit to begin.  Sadly, we realized that this was the last 8 days of our European adventure so we decided to focus on the week ahead and not the departure on 8/28.

Copenhagen – We made it

The Baltics – Ühesõnaga

That word in the title is Estonian for “in a nutshell.” Estonians know that it signals a really long explanation is coming.

Clay and I decided that this trip we wanted to go somewhere we had never been before.  We wanted the place(s) to be different from the usual vacation spots we go (& others, too).  Our other criteria included being cooler than Austin, Texas in the summertime (easy one), affordable (to make up for Norway, Finland, and Denmark), and have an interesting history that would expand our knowledge of the world.  The Baltics met all our criteria, so we began the process of learning about traveling there.

baltic capitals

We decided to visit the three Capital cities in the three countries, and perhaps take day trips from there as well.  The three are:   Tallinn, Estonia;  Riga, Latvia; and Vilnius, Lithuania.  Travel between the countries is very easy (via bus!) and affordable (about 10-15 Euros each).  We booked our Airbnb using our criteria which is easy to filter on the Airbnb Web Site:  Our place must have good reviews, be affordable (easy in the Baltics), have a washing machine, be close to public transportation, and a have bedroom that’s separate from the living area.  I read every review before making a decision on where to stay.

I asked an Austin friend who had traveled to the three Baltic countries about her favorite.  She liked all of them, but seemed at a loss to pick her favorite.  Now, I get it.  I struggle with that myself when I was trying to pick “my” favorite.  At the end of this section, I will tell you my favorite and ask Clay to do the same, but it really (of course) does depend on what you like.

Here are the positive and negatives of visiting the three cities in my opinion:


  • Beautiful old town
  • Affordable
  • Excellent Museums
  • Beautiful Parks and Palaces
  • Good public transportation
  • Incredible Maritime Museum
  • Wonderful food at affordable prices
  • A little too Touristy (cruise ship people make old town hard to navigate)
  • Locals not as friendly as I had expected


  • Beautiful Old Town
  • Affordable (slightly more affordable than Tallinn)
  • Public transportation – outstanding!
  • Live music (best of the Baltics!)
  • Outstanding Art Nouveau architecture (wow)
  • Outstanding Auto Museum (see earlier blog)
  • Great restaurants at affordable prices


  • Beautiful Old Town
  • Incredible number of outstanding churches
  • Extremely affordable (lowest of all 3)
  • Public transportation (good but not outstanding)
  • Outstanding Museum of Genocide Victims (wow!)
  • Good restaurants at extremely affordable prices
  • Not so many tourists! (not a port city)
  • Friendliest People in the Baltics
  • Museums good, but not the quality & number of Tallinn & Riga

Now, I would have to say that all the places were fun and entertaining.  We never left a place that we were happy to be leaving.  I have to say that Riga was my favorite, edging out Vilnius by a very small margin.  Tallinn was great, but just too touristy, but after the cruise ships left, the city became my favorite!

I will let Clay have the last word and get his thoughts on this subject.

I’ll add on to what Maggie said about our favorite cities: Riga was our favorite city as far as things to do: interesting history and art museums, entertaining night life, nice (and affordable) restaurants – it’s all there.

That said, our favorite people were the Lithuanians. Estonians and Latvians are helpful and earnest, but they are very reserved. Out in public, they simply don’t acknowledge a stranger’s presence unless it’s absolutely necessary. Likewise, they don’t make their presence known in public unless there’s a really good reason. Lithuanians are a totally different breed. People would smile back at us when we smiled at them. They would say hello. They seemed to be having more fun than anybody else. Vilnius has a lot of churches, but it’s not big for art and history museums, but the people more than made up for that.

The Baltics – Ühesõnaga

Lighten Up Yourself, Užupis Style*

Lithuania is unique in having increased the penalties for marijuana possession.  Currently, possessing even small amounts, with no intent to distribute, will land you in jail for up to two years – where just a few years ago, the police would have let you off with a beating. In the “Republic Užupis” – the section of Vilnius that’s across the river – they decided to let their feelings be known by having the statue of their guardian angel light up. Slideshow follows:

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Thanks to Brendan Harding for keeping us posted on what not to miss – on either side of the river.

∗With apologies to Bob Marley

Lighten Up Yourself, Užupis Style*

The Republic of Užupis

We arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, but didn’t stay long. Crossing the Vilnele River, we left the capital city and entered the Republic of Užupis, a small but fiercely independent country completely enclosed by Lithuania. It has a population of 7000, of whom 1000 are artists (meaning that the unemployment rate is one out of seven, a distressingly high figure for these times). It has a president, a flag – actually four flags, one for each season, and a patron saint: Frank Zappa.

We knew we were in good hands when we saw Užupis’ guardian angel, ready to sound the alarm if there was anything amiss.


Passing down the street, we took the obligatory stop to review the Constitution of Užupis, conveniently posted on the street in 23 languages, including Yiddish, Sanskrit and Hindi. It contains the Užupian motto,  “Don’t Fight, Don’t Win, Don’t Surrender” and a list of 38 unalienable rights and responsibilities. Among these are:

“Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.”
“Everyone has the right to love.”
“Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.”
“A dog has the right to be a dog.”
“Everyone has the right to understand.”
“Everyone has the right to understand nothing.”
“Everyone is responsible for their freedom.”
“No one has the right to make another person guilty.”
“Everyone has the right to be individual.”
“Everyone has the right to have no rights.”
“Everyone has the right to not to be afraid”

Needless to say, Maggie and I fit in right away. We met an Irish writer in a bar (where else?) who told us to not follow the guidebook, but wander around and make some new discoveries. Good advice. So far we’ve discovered a hall of graffiti  art, where to get the best croissants, and two wine stores that have a huge selection of wines that we’ve never heard of. Lots left to discover.

Gotta go – as a payment for his good advice, we promised to leave terrible reviews of the bar on TripAdvisor, so no more tourists will come in.

The Republic of Užupis

Vilnius, Lithuania

Arrival in Vilnius

Well, the bus ride from Riga to Vilnius was amazingly uneventful, given our previous experiences in the Baltics with some dare devil drivers .  It took four hours to make the journey, and the bus had all the modern conveniences including WiFi , and a bus attendant offering food and drinks for sale.  Nice touch for less than €10 each.  Lots cheaper and more convenient than flying.

Vilnius is the Capital of Lithuania and its largest city.  The population is just over 500K, but feels much smaller to me.  We got a cab from the airport to our apartment, and wondered in route how we would like our new place.  It was incredibly inexpensive – about half of the price of the apartments we had in Riga and Tallinn.  Opening the door we saw that the apartment had  hand-made “folk-style” furniture, wooden statuettes, and lovely  bamboo floors, and we instantly felt at home.  Take a look at a few photos of the interior.


Our apartment was located in Old Town, right in the middle of Užupis.  Clay is going to write a separate section describing this unique region.   Our apartment is a very quiet place with an inside private courtyard.  Away from the street, it provides us with a cool and quiet place to sleep –  even with all the windows open.  Below are a few photos from the courtyard.  In the first photo, the front door to the stairway leading to our 2nd floor apartment is on the right.  The second photo shows the way we exit the courtyard, via the small gate on the far right.  We do not have a car, nor do we want one.

our court yardgate

Food on our Minds

As soon as we unpacked for our week’s stay in Vilnius we immediately headed to the local grocery store just down the street.  We are getting good at grocery lists for short stays, I might add.  We usually eat out only once per day to try and control food costs so breakfast is almost always at “home”.

Eating out our first night in Vilnius, we decided to go traditional and find a local restaurant which served what was advertised as “traditional” Lithuanian food.  Cepelinai, probably the most traditional of all Lithuanian food, is a potato-based dumpling.  Besides potatoes, locals eat a lot of beets, rye bread, berries, mushrooms, and greens.  One of the most famous restaurants of this type was the Forto dvaras restaurant.  Of course I had to have the potato dumplings (photo on left), while Clay chose the grated potato pancakes with bacon (right) – kind of like his mother used to make, but bacon wasn’t part of her recipe.  Check our main courses out below.

Of course, Clay had to have a little fun with the wild mushroom soup that both of us ordered as a starter.  Clay finished his soup first, and proceeded to eat the bread on the bottom and make a fool of himself, I might add.  (Can’t take him anywhere!)

Wild mushroom soupclay with hole in bread

You probably noticed the stone walls of the restaurant.  We ate in the basement of the building, which was built in the 16th century. With the candles it is a very romantic place to dine (except when Clay ruins the atmosphere with his rye spy glass).  Check out the stone arches throughout the basement.

clay at restaurant

Enough about food, it’s time to hear from Clay and what he thinks of the unique place that we’re staying in.




Vilnius, Lithuania