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We Discover Northern Europe #3 — Estonia

October 19, 2016

Estonia City View - from, "Insight Guides" to Baltic States
Estonia City View – from “Insight Guides” to Baltic States

All our lives, we’d heard about the three fascinating Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; three small neighboring Northern European countries that have shared histories, similar geographies, different languages, and separate identities. They lie between Scandinavia to the north, Poland to the south, and Finland and Russia to the east. Their combined total land mass is only 67,000 square miles, about the size of Oklahoma—even smaller than Austria. Although they are much alike, they are also distinctively different from each other. According to Insight Guide editors, Lithuanians are stereotypically the most outgoing and nationalistic. Latvians are the most rural in outlook; because Russia did its utmost to swallow up its identity, today only 60% of Latvians are Latvian rather than Russian. Estonia is more influenced by Scandinavia. Under the heading of “Showing Affection” in the guidebook is this thought-provoking paragraph:

Old Town Fortress
Old Town Fortress

“Estonians have mastered the art of being impeccably polite without being friendly. Friendship, for them, is for life…. Despite their differences, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are united by a love of nature and the outdoors. Admittedly, they enjoy it in different ways. Lithuanians will drive their car to a beauty spot and blast their surroundings with pop music, whereas Latvians will organize barbecues or swimming parties. Estonians tend to regard such habits with horror, going to great lengths to find a truly solitary spot where they can sit in silence.”


Walking to Old Town
Walking to Old Town

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it was only possible for us to visit one of the three: Tallinn, the fairytale capitol of Estonia. It was a heartstoppingly beautiful blue-sky day when the Zuiderdam arrived. It took some getting used to for us to shake off distance misconceptions. Tallinn is only 53 miles from Helsinki, Finland; and 80 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia. This close proximity to giants such as Russia has resulted in a tragic past for the Baltic States. Every time Russia sneezes, they shudder. This is one reason they pay so much attention to U. S. politics, for if Russia should once again swallow them up, if the U.S. refuses to honor its treaties, one gobble and they’d be erased from the face of the map.

But it’s not just Russia that has dominated Estonia. The first conquerors wereestonia-alexander-nevsky-cathedral-scan the Danes; since the Estonians held off 1,000 ships, Denmark called in Teutonic Knights; together, in 1227, they took over Estonia. Sweden was next, but proved so repressive that Estonians turned to Peter the Great. By 1721, Russia was firmly in control. Estonia remained subjugated for 270 years until on August 20, 1991, with Russian tanks rolling into Tallinn, Estonia formally declared its independence. Thus, Estonia has only been independent for a paltry 25 years in its entire history!

Tallinn is a medieval walking town with      meandering cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to stay long in the lovely old city. Apparently, it is today being loved to death by Russians, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Danes—just for starters. Yet, in spite of it all, Estonians revel in their newly won freedom.

Just as was true of the Danes, Estonians were all outdoors, savoring the early May sunshine. They are so far north, Northern Europe is, that they have very long gloomy winters, with precious little sunshine. Consequently, when May comes, no one wants to stay indoors!

It was with great reluctance that we watched Tallinn receding from view, vowing to return in order to explore more of those three magical little nations, each reveling in its new-found freedom.

Toompea Castle



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We Discover Northern Europe #2 – Denmark

October 12, 2016

denmark-palace-hotel-scanThe series began on August 31, but it has taken until now to pick it up again. The 24-day cruise on Holland America was a gift from my bride, Connie. Its purpose was to console me for having to add more zeroes to my life’s odometer.

Northern Europe, we’d never experienced before, so we were certainly looking forward to it. The flight from Denver to Toronto, and then from Toronto to Copenhagen was long and forgettable as are most flights today no small thanks to cramped seating (little leg-room; none if the person in front of you leans back on you). It would be much more comfortable were we wealthy and able to afford First Class, where they turn seats into beds. It was a big Air Canada jet (nine seats across) that ferried us over the Atlantic “pond.” The night seemed not only long but interminable.

But finally, there below us was Copenhagen, capital of Denmark. In our mostdenmark-mime-scan informative guidebook I discovered that Denmark occupies over 480 islands (only about a hundred being inhabited). Always the country has served as a pivotal strategic bridge between Europe and Scandinavia. Denmark is also the world’s oldest monarchy. Trivia buffs might be interested in the Danish flag as it is the world’s oldest. Like many tourists who come here, I associated the little nation as home to the intrepid Vikings and the beloved folk tale anthologizer, Hans Christian Andersen. Of course his iconic Little Mermaid was a must on our places to see and photograph.

Canal cruising
Canal cruising

Throughout its history, Denmark has played a major role in European events. It was sending out Viking warships as early as the Ninth Century. During the denmark-mermaid-scanreign of Canute (1018-35), the Danish king also ruled over England and Norway. Copenhagen was founded in 1167. During the reign of Valdemar (V (1340-1375), the Kalmar Union was formed; united Denmark, Norway, and Sweden into one kingdom. This lasted until 1523, when Sweden elected its own king. Disastrous wars followed and lasted until 1720. The Napoleonic aftermath was even worse. In 1814, Denmark lost 124,292 square miles of territory, including Norway. Denmark then ceased to be a great power. Copenhagen’s main attractions today include three royal palaces, museums, churches, and monuments.

But back to us; after disembarking we were bussed to the Palace Hotel, wheredenmark-royal-yacht-scan many of the Holland American passengers stayed. While waiting for a room, groggy-eyed, we wandered down to a canal where we boarded a Gray Line barge. What a fascinating water tour of the city that was! We saw the Little Mermaid from the water-side; later, from the land-side. Everyone, it seems wants to be photographed next to it.

The Royal Yacht

We were shocked to discover a city where almost everyone moved around by bicycle! More shocking yet, here cyclists have the right of way over both autos and people walking! Needless to say, the Danish are a very physically fit race. Obesity is rare.

denmark-architec-2-scanLater in the afternoon, our traveling buddies, Bob and Lucy Earp arrived from Tennessee by way of a week in London with their daughter. That evening found us in Tivoli Gardens, the most visited tourist destination in Denmark. We were now becoming sticker-shocked! Even a cup of coffee costs $10 – $15! More sticker shock for our room: $465 U.S. Next day we boarded the Zuiderdam. We would return to Copenhagen once in the middle of our cruise and again at the end. It is indeed a lovely city, and the Danes are a very happy people – especially in their all too brief summer. In the winter, they’re lucky to see the sun two to three hours a day.

Vor Frislers Kirke with spiral tower on the outside.

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August 31, 2016


Day One                     Copenhagen, Denmark (start of first cruise)
Day Two                     Warnemunde, Germany
Day Three                  At Sea
Day Four                    Talinn, Estonia
Day Five                     St. Petersburg, Russia
Day Six                       St. Petersburg, Russia
Day Seven                  Helsinki, Finland
Day Eight                   Stockholm, Sweden
Day Nine                    At Sea
Day Ten                      Kiel, Germany
Day Eleven                Gothenborg, Sweden
Day Twelve               Helsingborg, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark
Day Thirteen            Copenhagen, Denmark (start of second cruise)
Day Fourteen           Oslo Fjord and Oslo, Norway
Day Fifteen               Kristiansand, Norway
Day Sixteen              Stavanger, Norway
Day Seventeen         Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Day Eighteen           At Sea
Day Nineteen           Glasgow (Greenock), Scotland
Day Twenty              Isle of Skye (Portree), Scotland
Day Twenty-one      Invergordon, Scotland
Day Twenty-two      Edinburgh (S. Queensferry), Scotland
Day Twenty-three   Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
Day Twenty-four     At Sea
Day Twenty-five      Copenhagen, Denmark

Scan0007It’s a long way from home to Europe: Denver to Toronto, Canada; Toronto to Copenhagen, Denmark. Since our seats are in coach, we get precious little sleep en route to Europe. We get to Denmark one day early for several reasons: plane-flights can be delayed or canceled without notice; luggage is sometimes mis-sent or never arrives at all; for jet-lag reasons, it’s important to slot in an extra day to deal with it.

Neither Connie nor I had ever been in Northern Europe before, thus this for us is indeed a “trip of a lifetime.”

But before we board the Zuiderdam, it would be helpful for me to share some information with you about the Baltic Sea.


For starters, it’s cold! The 60th parallel runs right through it. Perhaps it may help to give you some specifics: Also on or near the 60th parallel are Anchorage, Alaska; Whitehorse and Hudson Bay, Canada; the southern tip of Greenland; and Northern Siberia in Russia.

The Baltic is the largest expanse of brackish water in the world. It is semi-landlocked and rather shallow for the most part. Surprisingly, it is 85 to 90 percent fresh water, mainly because so much river water drains into it and because the entrance area into the North Sea is rather shallow as well. It is because of this that thousands of ancient ships are still preserved in its waters. Because of that low salinity, wooden ships are still preserved as well. Roughly finger-shaped, it covers 160,000 square miles and drains nearly four times that. In the winter, it tends to freeze over. Countries clockwise from the west are Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark. Although it reaches a depth of 1,500 feet, predominantly it tends to be only a few hundred feet deep.

We were lucky: we visited it in early summer.

* * *

Several weeks from now, we’ll begin our cruise journey in Denmark.

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Around the World in 60 Days

August 10, 2016

Well, it was and it wasn’t. But Connie and I did travel some 24,000 miles in 60 days, and since the circumference of our world is around 24,000 miles, I thought it would be an apt title.

It started with a rather jolting birthday. Certain decade-birthdays that come to all of us, if we live long enough, are harder to take than others. This was one of them.

Knowing this, Connie decided to rummage around and see what she could do to soften the blow. She found it in a Vacations to Go travel listing: a 24-day cruise in Northern Europe for little more than one would pay for a seven-day cruise! Reason being, it was the first summer cruise to that part of the world, and Holland America wanted to fill the ship.

In early May, we flew to Denmark via Toronto, and we visited Estonia, Germany, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, the Shetland Islands, Scotland, England, and Denmark. The following month we took an extended road-trip traveling America’s back roads southeast to the Florida Keys (for our 34th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention); north to Annapolis, Maryland; northwest to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, then southeast to Denver. About 17,000 miles on the European cruise and 7,000 miles on the American road trip, adding up to the equivalent of a 24,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe.

It will take us considerable time to share all this with you (not straight through but in batches, as there’ll be a number of other subjects I’ll wish to weigh in on along the way.

Those of you who have delayed getting book orders in to us, be advised that we’ll be able to fill book orders for some time to come. So let us know how we can be of service to you.

Meanwhile, keep your traveling shoes on.

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August 20, 2014

Why indeed?

This was the question Washington Post columnist Brigid Schulte tackled in her August 10 column in The Denver Post.

Schulte notes that “We Americans work hard. Weekends are more like workends. We sleep with our smart phones. And we think vacations are for wimps. So we don’t take them. Or take work along with us if we do.”

We are indeed a nation of workaholics. Indeed we are the only advanced economy with no national vacation policy. One in four workers, typically in low-wage jobs, have no paid vacation at all. Those who do, get, on the average, only ten to fourteen days a year. Europeans enjoy twenty to thirty days of paid vacation every year.

Terry Hartig, an environmental psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, maintains that “when people go on a relaxing vacation, they tend to return happier and more relaxed. . . . And those mellow, good vibes spread like “a contagion’ to everyone you come in contact with. . . . Send everyone away on vacation at the same time [as is true in Europe], and that contagion takes off through the population like a viral happiness pandemic.”

Hartig and his colleagues conducted a major study based on the incidence of anti-depressant prescriptions in Sweden during the years 1993 through 2005. They discovered that the more people took vacations at the same time, the more prescriptions dropped exponentially. True for men, women, workers, and retirees. Since 1977, Swedish law has mandated that every worker must be given five weeks of paid vacation each year (and they may take four of them during summer months. “The benefits,” maintains Hartig, “are huge. Not only is the society measurably happier, but workers are more rested and productive, relationships are closer and people are healthier. And depression is a very costly disease.”

Depression alone costs the U.S. economy an estimated $23 billion a year in lost productivity.

* * * * *

We were not created to run non-stop, but rather to take time off from work at least once a week. Scripture mandates Sabbaths during which we may regenerate. Longer Sabbaths were also mandated periodically. Multiple studies have confirmed one universal truth: Those who work non-stop soon reach the point of diminishing returns. The more hours they put in on the job the less effective they are, the staler their ideas are. So employers who work their employees to death end up losing even more than their employees do.

Furthermore, unless you frequently get out of your workplace squirrel cage, you never gain fresh ideas at all, but merely recycle increasingly outdated concepts and methods.

So back to Hartig who notes that, in Sweden, “It’s like there’s this national agreement that it’s vacation time, and work will be left aside. So instead of working and being distracted and busy, people get outside. They do things they like and enjoy. They see friends, visit their aging parents, or finally have time for that cup of tea with a friend who has been blue.”

* * * * *

America continues to pay a terrible price for our workaholocism. The current epidemic of depression and suicides ought to be a wake-up call for us.

We must take time to live!