Wednesday, September 20, 2017

your garden

I spent most of the day exploring the royal island of Djurgården, a public park in Stockholm filled with museums, amusement parks, castles, and great views in every direction.

You can get out in the water in a tour boat, a paddle boat, a solar boat, or as I did, a public ferry.
First stop for any Vassar girl is the Vasa museum, Sweden's biggest attraction besides Princess cake.
The Vasa is a 17th century war ship built for the King in a hurry.
On its maiden voyage in 1628, it capsized and sank in Stockholm.
Even at the time, there was a post-mortem on what went wrong.
Divers were sent to recover munitions from the ship using this diving bell, which provided a slight bubble of oxygen.
But the ship stayed underwater for 333 years until 1961. Since then, it has been painstakingly restored, a process that continues to this day.
You can watch some of the work.
The ship had incredibly detailed sculpture.
Mythological figures and the seals of Swedish royalty.
It's hard to capture the scale of the vessel. And perhaps it's fortunate it sank right away rather than farther at sea, when the entire crew would have died too. Fascinating work. The museum includes sections on shipbuilding, showing the tools that would have been used 400 years ago.

The brutalist building containing the Vasa, half of it below ground, is meant to look like a ship. I found it so uninviting, I almost skipped the museum.
The nearby Nordic museum has a Hogwarts feel.
A graveyard adds to the spook factor. It's not an old graveyard though. Many of the tombstones are recent.

The walk across the island is bucolic, surrounded by parkland, joggers, and strollers.
My destination on the Rosendals way is a greenhouse cafe that epitomizes the Scandinavian philosophy of hygge: coziness. And also harmony with the natural environment.
You can tell by the soup and carb heavy diet and the plaid throw blankets casually draped over the chairs. Bottles of water left on the table for you to hydrate and help yourself. No one rushes you out of a Scandinavian cafe.
Bring home flowers and vegetables if you're so inclined. Or just admire their skill. 
Take home a hearty bread, or ten. But bring a credit card, because like Fotografiska, Rosendal doesn't take cash.
Across the way is a palace, with quite a nice lawn.

A reminder that not all Swedish history is peaceful and happy. The mythology of Swedish kings frequently celebrates brutality and dominance, as the statue of the goddess or nymph looks on.

Stockholm really is architecturally blessed.
After the rain in Riga, I really appreciated the sunshine.
Who wouldn't want to rent an ice cream colored bicycle?
Tomorrow I'm off! Stockholm definitely deserves more than 48 hours. I didn't even get to check out all the art in the subway stations.
Thank goodness Norwegian flies nonstop from Oakland to Stockholm...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

if it's Tuesday, this must be Stockholm

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

Cobblestones are hard on wheels, and on your feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

from Riga with love

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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