French Lessons with the Chinese

One of my goals in Paris is to improve my French. Shortly after arriving, I searched the internet for French language schools.  Tons came up. After perusing the offerings, prices and reviews, I chose the most logical school – the one Google identified as nearest to me. I signed up for 2 hours of group French lessons each day.

I arrived for my first class – there were 9 of us initially- and except for me, they were all Asian. Saejee, a former English professor whose husband had been transferred to Paris, was Korean, the others Chinese. Our teacher, Lucie, favoured baggy overalls, had a tattoo on her left arm and kept her long, dark hair in bun, held in place with polka dotted scrunchies. It looked so French – both chic and messy at the same time.

We each introduced ourselves – in French – but English was the lingua franca and whenever Lucie had to explain something other than in French, she turned to English. Saejee and I understood the English, but the other students’ comprehension ranged from barely to not at all. Nevertheless, they nodded in agreement whenever Lucie asked “ca va?” (its okay) even when they had no idea what she had said.

My usual partner, Yang, is a 17 year old from Hunan, China who loves languages, but struggles in English and her French is even worse. She keeps asking me to explain the meaning of words which are obvious to any native English speaker: “intelligiente”, “romantique”, “positive” but might as well be Greek to her. We have odd conversations, one of which translates as follows:

“What profession an acteur?”

“Do you know Tom Cruise?”

“No, what is a Tom Cruise?”

“Maybe you know George Clooney?”

Another shake of the head. I realized she would be equally clueless who or what a Robert Redford or John Wayne might be. Try as I might, I could not (and still cannot) name an actor or actress under 25.

Which brings up another divide. While the class is for adults, Saejee is the next closest to me in age – 35 – and the others between 17 and 30. A few are students back in China, a pair are musicians working in Paris. Una, a former book editor and Chinese teacher, moved here when she married a Frenchman.

We practice our French as best we can. I am the only student with a child but they all want 2 children- a boy and a girl. Identifying what sports everyone plays, 2 said none, 1 likes hiking, Saejee is a weightlifter and everyone else mentioned badminton. I am the only cyclist.

Lucie is strict about phone use. After the first student picked up her cellphone during class, Lucie admonished her and said “no phones during class”. Another tried to photograph  the blackboard containing verb conjunctions. Lucie told her to write it down as she would remember it better. When I tried to check a word spelling on Google Translate, Lucie shook her head. No cellphones and no dictionaries. We learned, but Lucie did not. Routinely as we we completed assignments in class, Lucie whipped out her cellphone and checked it for messages.

Compensating for this forced deprivation of cellphones, we all immediately pulled them out at every coffee break and stared furtively at the screen, scanning for messages, watching videos and avoiding conversation. But slowly the group began to talk, both in Chinese or English. Saejee returned after a day’s  absence and provided an hilarious description of her encounter with the French medical system after suffering  food poisoning. Apparently, she was turned away from the hospital and told to wait at home for a doctor to make a house call. She described the doctor as no more than 18.  She attributed the food poisoning to the “greasy French food” (her description, not mine). To a person, all of my classmates nodded in agreement. They abhorred French cooking and blamed all sorts of ills on it.

Talk turned to travel. The Chinese were intrigued I had visited China but responding that Lhasa (in occupied Tibet) was my favourite city in China was met by complete silence. Equally perplexing to them was I had started my Chinese adventure in Kunming.  They were aghast. It is a dangerous city, they said, and no place for a foreigner. That reaction was unexpected – we had enjoyed Kunming and felt not a whiff of danger. Similarly, when I discussed the million or so people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, blank stares greeted me. They knew nothing of that. Even Chenguang, a human resources expert who had spent 7 years working in Africa, watching Western TV and reading newspapers, was unaware that the Dam had displaced a single person.

One afternoon, the conversation turned toward beauty products. Saejee bemoaned the fact that her favourite face mask –made in Korea but also sold in China – was not available in France. Apparently a Chinese substitute was sold in Paris, but at twice the cost. At this point, I returned to staring at my cellphone.

Every afternoon we meet, practice our pronunciation, work through grammar points, pick up new vocabulary. Each day, my classmates’ personalities reveal a little more. Yang wants to be pastry chef when she leaves school.  Li wants to find a romantic husband. Jing loves museums and is enthralled with the Louvre.

And so it goes.

The Downside of Technology: Paris Week 1

When I was 19, way back in 1979, I went on the obligatory “see Europe on $10 a day” trip with a Eurorail pass and a well used copy of Frommer’s Europe on $5 per day. ATMs had not been invented and 19 year olds were not given credit cards, so I had cash and traveller’s checks. Cell phones only existed on Star Trek, so my single call home in 2 months was from a Post Office booth in Rome, where I waited in line to make an appointment with an attendant, then waited (for hours I recall) until I was called and told my call had been placed. I was directed to one of a dozen wooden booths which lined the office. Once there, I picked up the phone with my mother and we talked for a few minutes, all the while my eye on the clock since the phone call was outrageously expensive.

Nor were advance reservations possible. On arrival in Rome at midnight, the hostel was full but we were welcome to unroll our backpacks and sleep on the grass. Also in Rome, I showed up at the train station but no seat was available on the last foreseeable train to Paris (a train strike loomed in Italy), so I plucked myself in an aisle for a while before moving to the luggage car, stretched out with other backpackers and tried to sleep.

Fast forward to today and all the technology that is supposed to make travelling easier. HAHAHA!!!

I have come to the conclusion that all this technology is a giant joke perpetuated on the unsuspecting public by a group of technologically savvy nerds trying to justify their salaries by creating idiotic means of doing just about everything these days, then adding layer upon layer of complexity masquerading as security solely designed to screw me.

To wit: A day after arriving in Paris, I received a message from Hotmail, my email provider for at least the last 18 years saying it had detected strange activity on my account (I had signed in from Paris) and needed to be authenticated. Simply enter the verification code sent to the phone number associated with my email and all would be fine. Except I had changed phone numbers when I left Canada so the number was no longer valid. I managed to find the security settings on Hotmail and changed the number to the Latvian number I had been using. A text message with a verification code arrived, I entered it into Hotmail, and Hotmail responded that I had successfully changed my security code and it would take 30 days before implementation. In the meantime, I could access Hotmail using the link provided.

Except I could not. I spent hours trying and all I got were circular messages routing me back to the “enter your new number” message and wait 30 days. I tried Hotmail’s help icon, but received only a snarky message saying it was not a chat and it would need a screenshot of the message before it could assist. I tried to use my Outlook email to respond but it too is connected to Hotmail and was equally inaccessible and impossible to send a screenshot even if I had been able to take one.

In a panic, I called my computer savvy son at 6AM. His none-too-happy groggy advice was to set up a Gmail account so at least I could receive emails and he would see what he could do. I did so, all the while thinking what a bother this was. All my accounts were set up with my Hotmail email address- the bank, expedia, my contacts, Phoenix and pensions….it would take me forever to contact each and give them a new email address.

Fortunately, and no thanks to Hotmail/Outlook, after 24 hours I tried to connect using my Mac Air computer, as opposed to the IPhone or the IPad and instead of sending me on a never ending roundabout, it sent me to a very long list of security questions:

  • Did you ever use Skype? Yes, in 2007.
  • What number did you call? Thank you father for having the same number forever.
  • Did you ever buy any Microsoft products? How the f$*$%&# should I know.
  • When and where did you open your Hotmail account? In Winnipeg maybe in 1998.

Something clicked since the next message told me I had answered enough correctly to pass security and access my account. After 24 hours without Hotmail and a lot of sweat, frustration and working out alternatives, I was finally allowed into my own account.

Technological disaster number 2 occurred a few days later when I was booking a flight to Australia. I have decided I cannot bear staying in Paris over the winter when the sky is dark, the rain is never ending and it is cold. The departure and returning airlines confirmed my tickets on-line but the next day I received emails from both airlines advising that my credit card was subject to verification and, failing that within 48 hours, my reservations would be cancelled. To verify, I simply needed to send a pdf of my passport, my credit card statement and an indemnity for the amount of the ticket in case the charge was fraudulent. This was ridiculous. Even assuming I had the capability to do all of the above, I don’t want to share my credit card information with overly nosey airlines. The other option was to go to the airline office with my credit card and passport and prove it was really me charging my card. Since the office was not too far away, I walked over and a very helpful employee both verified me and the charge and explained that, in all likelihood, the charge was flagged by the airline since the card was issued in Toronto but the charge came from Paris.

Problem number 3 occurred as I tried to book a train trip, in France, on the French national railway line SNCF. I duly registered my account, filled in all the necessary information, gave it my credit card and was promptly declined. Their FAQ advised that only credit cards equipped with a 3DS/Safekey system would work and suggested I try again with a card with that system. I don’t know what it is, I have never heard of it but I highly suspect none of my cards have it. I foresee a future trip to the train station to buy the tickets.

All of which has me longing for the good old days of traveller’s checks, live reservation agents and snail mail.




Settling into Paris

Paris did not begin well. I didn’t make it out of the airport…. actually, I did and that was the problem. I was in the taxi line before I realized I had forgotten to pick up my suitcase. Years of traveling without checking a bag had habituated me to walking directly from the plane to the taxi line.

I doubled back to the passenger exit to be met by an intimidating  “passage interdit” sign. Even my bad French told me that going through those doors would not be a good idea. Two heavily armed police officers came by – not for me- so I asked them, again in my really bad French, what to do. Something clicked because they took me by the hand (I think after they gave up giving me directions) and deposited me at Luggage Services. I explained my dilemma to the lady there, who waved me to another Luggage Services counter behind some walls. There, another lady told me in English to go to Post 1 and look for the short man with glasses before turning to her colleague and saying something in French. I am sure I heard “idiot”.
Making my way to Post 1, which is not as easy as it sounds as there are tons of posts at Charles de Gaulle airport, mostly with signs of some sort, I saw a man with glasses near the “passage interdit” door. For the record, he was about 5 foot 8 inches, which I wouldn’t describe as short. He greeted me by name and I asked him how he knew who I was. He said there was only one unclaimed bag and it had my name on it. We both chuckled, he led me to my bag and I left the airport again, this time with my suitcase.


My next challenge was entering the Airbnb suite I had booked. Normally, the Airbnb host is supposed to greet you, let you in and show you around. I had no such luck. When I emailed my host the time of arrival, he said he would be out of town for the weekend, but left the most convoluted instructions. They went something like this:

…the keys will be under the doormat. Use the longer key to unlock first using the locker second from above. Be careful it goes in the wrong way so to unlock you turn from left to right as if you wanted to lock! And then take the shorter key to push the door open by turning right to left. You will not use the upper and bottom locker. In any case, do not force with the keys you would break them…..

I had sweated my ability to perform this operation for a week, but thought I had better give it a try since I didn’t have much of an alternative. To my amazement (and with an extremely gentle turn to the right on the second of four locks), the door opened and I was in. Relief set in and was even more pronounced when I connected to the wifi. Mission accomplished!
My neighborhood in the 17th arrondissement is a 10 minute walk from Montmartre, but miles away from the tourist haunts. There is a bar/restaurant next door to my building and dozens more within a few blocks. Patisseries selling fresh baguettes abound, with colorful macarons in the windows and tempting tarts, strudels and croissants. Within 2 blocks of my place are 4 butchers, an oyster shop, 2 cheese stores, too many wine stores to count and at least one laundromat every 100 meters.
Aside from being well equipped with all the necessities, the striking feature of the neighborhood (and all of Paris) is the diversity. In stark contrast to the homogeneity of the Baltics and to a lesser extent, Sweden and Finland, Paris is multicoloured. Blacks, Arabs and Asians speaking perfect French; Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, the lady who cut my hair talking Arabic, the beggar in the metro station with the sign saying “Nous Somme Syrian refugees”. Multiculturalism is thriving here.
The myth of the rude Parisian was also quickly dispelled. When I tried to buy a SIM card for my phone from the non-English speaking telephone store clerk, he locked the store and walked me down the block to the Tabac to buy some minutes. The shelf stocker in the grocery store laughed when I resorted to Google Translate to ask where the flour (florine) was, but showed me its location, which, for some unfathamable reason, is beside the eggs in dairy. The counter clerk in the Bureau de Post (Post Office) walked me over to the machine to buy a stamp to send an envelope to Canada and punched in all the information sought by the machine (weight, air mail, etc.) when the machine kept asking me questions in French.


My local bar/restaurant is also very tolerant. The waiter and I have connected on my preferred order- a large glass of Chardonnay – which does not have the oaky taste so prevalent in Canada.  Strangely, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are not readily available and the only Pinot Gris I purchased from the store was quite sweet.
The single exception to the “be nice to tourists” attitude I generally encountered occurred in the most unexpected spot – the official tourism office. I expected to find one near the Arc de Triomphe, but couldn’t see one. Google Maps sent me to the nearby Official Tourism for the island of Mauritius which, while very pleasant, was totally useless in my queries. Finally, Google Maps directed to the official Paris Tourism office in the Place de Congress some 4 kilometres away. I later discovered a much closer one just outside the Louvre, but Google Maps is oblivious to it.
Back to the tourism office. After passing through the security post, a lady behind the counter beckoned me over. She said she spoke a bit of English – she was pretty fluent to me. I told her I had 5 questions:
1. How do I sign up for Velbo- the bike ride share in Paris? She looked at me as if I was from Mars then pointed to the “Information for residents” and suggested they could help (Correct answer-sign up on the internet and download the app).
2. How do I use the Metro? She looked at me again aghast. “How should I know? I do not use it. Go ask the person at the station.” I cannot believe that in however long she worked there not a single other person ever asked how to use the metro. Beside, it was another wrong answer. There is no person in the metro station. The correct answer is: Go to a machine, tap on the flag of the UK for English, and follow the very straightforward instructions.
3. Where do I go to deal with visa issues (as in immigration not credit cards). Another “ how the f*($&**should I know” totally useless response.
4. How do I recharge my SIM card for my phone? The third “how should I know” answer. Correct one is go to any Tabac, buy a card then dial the number on the back of the card and enter the code. Why I buy a SIM card at a carrier store but recharge it at a Tabac was never explained but at its face seems totally irrational.

5. Can I have a map of Paris? She actually got this right- sweeping her hand toward a large display of maps at the back. “Go there and get one. They are free.”

She was useless on 4 of 5 questions and seemed to begrudge me the time it took to respond to my queries. Nonetheless, she was the exception. Everyone else has been quite lovely.

And so went the better parts of my first week in Paris. Next up, the pitfalls of traveling with technology.

Lithuania: The Dark and Lighter sides

Nine days on a highlights tour of the Baltics had saturated my desire to see Medieval castles, Lutheran churches and Catholic cathedrals, but Lithuania was next on the agenda and there were plenty of the above, along with Orthodox churches, both Russian and Ukrainian. I chose, instead, to focus my free time, after the standard city tours of medieval castles, churches and cathedrals, on my Jewish heritage. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers had ties with its capital, Vilnius, so I was curious to learn what life might have been for their families in the past.

First, some history to put everything in context. Like the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania was first invaded by German crusaders in the 13th century. Unlike those other countries, Lithuania successfully repelled them, making it the last pagan kingdom in Europe. The Duchy of Lithuania ruled Lithuania, battling the Germans, Poles, Mongols and Russians over the centuries. In 1387, the Grand Duke married a Polish princess, converted to Catholicism and created the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth, a marriage having significant impacts for the next 450 years.

The Commonwealth prevailed until about 1522.  200 years of Russian invasions and territorial concessions followed.  In 1791, Lithuania was formally annexed into Russia where it remained until it declared independence in 1918 amid the chaos ensuing from the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, Poland also lay claim and was granted the city of Vilnius since it was 40% Polish (and 40% Jewish). Lithuania’s capital moved to Kaunas, but emotions simmered between the Poles and Lithuania over who Vilnius belonged to. Re-enter the Russians in 1939, who promised to return Vilnius to Lithuania if it could station a few thousand troops there. Lithuania agreed, it got back Vilnius, but Russia set up a local puppet government which promptly agreed to join the USSR. So much for Independence.

The Russians began their Sovietization, deporting over 10,000 Lithuanians to Gulags or Siberia. But on June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded and Lithuania capitulated within a week. At first, the Nazis were welcomed as liberators from the Russians, but when their motives became clear, they too became occupiers. Some Lithuanians were happy to collaborate with the Nazis; others took to the woods to become partisans or freedom fighters. The Nazis remained until January, 1945, when the Russians again annexed the country into the USSR, where it remained until it finally gained independence in 1991, but not without bloodshed. In a confrontation with Soviet soldiers at the Vilnius TV Tower, 14 Lithuanians died.

The Dark Side: Lithuania’s Jewish Heritage

Way back in the 1300’s, the Grand Duke recognized that his people were great soldiers, farmers and fishermen, but lacking in the merchant and trade department. So he issued an invitation to the Jews to come and settle in Lithuania. They came in droves, mostly from Germany fleeing the crusaders amid allegations that they were somehow responsible for the bubonic plague sweeping the continent.

They came also from the Crimea, a distinct sect known as the Karaim who rejected the Talmud. Their language is Turkic and they variously describe themselves as the real Jews or, to avoid death in WWII, claimed not to be Jewish. They worship in Kenesas, one of which we viewed in Trakai. We also ate at a Karaim restaurant there, where I had a meat filled pasty that reminded me mostly of an empanada.

The Kenesa

Back to the history: the Jews were granted a Charter in 1388, allowing them to govern themselves, raise taxes and enforce their own laws in their communities. They had separate schools, separate churches, separate community centers. Conversations were in Yiddish, except when conducting trade with the Poles or Lithuanians. As most Jewish boys were required to study the Torah from a young age, they were literate in an age when few could read. Thus many occupied roles as trusted advisors to the noble class. Not surprisingly, this lead to jealousy amongst the locals. In addition, the independence allowed the Jews in their communities meant that they didn’t integrate with the Poles or Lithuanians, but rather lived a separate existence side by side.

The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum narrates this history, along with art displays by Samuel Bak, a Vilnius holocaust survivor and prodigy who had his first exhibit in the city at 9. During the Holocaust, 95% of the 250,000 Jews in Lithuania were exterminated by the Nazis, mostly taken to nearby woods and shot.  Memorials in the woods  are situated next to the mass graves.

Bak’s vision of Vilnius

In Vilnius itself, little remains of the vibrant Jewish culture that once thrived in the Jerusalem of the North. The Great Synagogue was bombed by the Nazis, then razed by the Soviets to make way for a school. A few signs remain, the writing in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish. There is a plaque at the Theatre honouring the Jewish theatre group which, controversially, performed in the ghetto during the Nazi period.

Milda, the guide for the Jewish Vilnius tour was not Jewish, but a student working on her master’s thesis in Religious Studies. She took us through the streets of the old ghettos, pointing out the memorials to the victims and statues of famous Jews who had once lived there. It was only in the last decade or so, she explained, that real progress had been made to honour the former Jewish culture. During the Soviet period, the Soviets tried to quash all religious references that violated its official policy of atheism. This extended to prohibiting memorials that mentioned Jewish victims of WWII; one could only refer to victims. In the decade following Independence, the focus had been on rebuilding the economy.

But now a number of initiatives were underway to celebrate the city’s Jewish past. The school where the Great Synagogue stood is set to be demolished and archeologists are planning to excavate the huge underground ruins. Troves of books and papers, nearly 17,000 items, secreted from the library and hidden in a church for 70 years, came to light last year. And the story of Lithuania’s Oscar Schindler is being told and retold. He was Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who disobeyed his country’s orders and issued over 5,000 exit visas to Jews, allowing them to escape Lithuania by taking the Transiberian Railway to China and onward to Japan.

Milda was blunt about Lithuanian collaborators with the Nazis and explained there was a debate going on as to how to deal with it. Some Lithuanians thought it necessary to acknowledge and come to grips with its past; others saw it as something that happened long ago which would be better forgotten. As for the current attitude, like any society, there is an element which is anti-Semitic, racist and against immigration. Lithuania (and all the Baltics for that matter) is glaringly homogeneous.  As another of my tour guides said, very few immigrants want to come here. Still another volunteered that if you were a Syrian refugee, you would probably not be comfortable here.

The Lighter Side of Lithuania


There is a definite kooky side to Lithuania, such as the bust of Frank Zappa in Vlinius. What connection has the non-conformist American musician to Vilnius? Absolutely none. He was never there; he had no Lithuanian blood in him. I heard two versions of why he had been honoured. One was a Lithuanian super fan managed to convince the city council that Zappa really was Lithuanian and deserved a bust. Another is slightly darker. Following the departure of the Soviets, local artists wanted to see how far they could push the envelope in terms of anti-establishment personalities and Zappa was the most notorious person they could think of when they submitted his name to the council to test its limits. Whatever the truth, there is a bust of Frank Zappa in the city.


Then there is the Republic of Uzupis, an artist’s quarter located in the old city. It declared its independence in 1997, and celebrates it every April 1st by demanding all visitors acquire a visa, which is accomplished by smiling. It has its own flag, currency, an army (of 11) and a constitution drawn up over a few pints of beer with such articles as People have the right to have no rights. Internet cafes, malls and kiosks are banned. The area is awash in amusing artwork and the lowest price bars in town.

The Hill of Witches is located in a forested area on the Curonian Spit, a narrow strip of land Lithuania shares with Russia. It is exactly as its name implies, a forest trail filled with 80 wood carvings of pagan and folklore symbols. It was started in 1979 and tolerated by the Soviets so long as it didn’t contain any religious or anti-Soviet images. The figures draw on Lithuania’s long history of wood carving and are wonderfully expressive.

The carving called the Gates to Hell features the Gates and the Devil. Legend says that if you walk through the Gates, touch the devil, then return back through the Gates, you can brag that you have been to Hell and back again.


Which seems like a fitting metaphor for my thoughts on Lithuania.


Loving (not) Latvia

The second Baltic country on our tour’s itinerary was the smallest- Latvia – sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania. It shares a history with Estonia: invaded by German crusaders in 1202 who captured the land, converted the pagan tribes to Christianity, then spent the next 750 years battling, in no specific order, the Danes, Swedes, Russians, Germans and Poles, before being granted independence in 1918. That was short lived, as the Soviets invaded again in 1940, retreated when the Nazis marched in and occupied Latvia, then became part of the USSR in 1945 until independence was reasserted in 1991.

Given its history, it is not surprising that its main tourist attractions are religious (Catholic cathedrals, Orthodox domed churches and Lutheran churches) and the remains of medieval castles and walls, mostly restored after centuries of neglect and bombings during WWII. Our first stop covered all bases, at the “beautifully restored” 14th century Castle of the Livonia Order at Cesis and another across the valley at Sigulda.

At least the town had a sense of humour when it came to statuary:


The capital, Riga, was the next stop. The landmark building was a gift from the Soviet Union, a testament to Socialist architecture and nicknamed “Stalin’s Birthday Cake”. It was almost an exact replica as the one in Warsaw and equally gaudy and disliked.


A walking tour of Riga took us to through the Market, made of abandoned Zepplin hangars, the Old Town, the walls of the medieval town, lots of churches being gussied up in anticipation of the Pope’s visit the following day, and a tribute to its sister city in Germany, Bremen, with the animals peering though a wall. Much of the Old Town had been bombed during WWII, so many of the buildings were restorations but it was hard to guess which ones.


There was the inevitable Freedom Monument and an Occupation Museum which I visited. In 1949, during the Soviet Occupation, over 40,000 Latvians were deported to Siberia as part of the socialization of the country. These were the wealthy farmers and intellects; their deportation was designed to encourage the remaining farmers to voluntarily give up their land to the collective good. The displays included a film about the deportees lives in the Gulag and Siberia and their return in 1955 after the death of Stalin. The museum kept referencing that the deportees made of 2.2% of the entire population of Latvia.

The outdoor memorial to the Holocaust and Riga ghetto also references numbers, 70,000 Jews killed by the Nazis, 200 existing synagogues destroyed, less than 1,000 Jews remaining in Latvia after the war. Complicity by some Latvians was acknowledged, as were efforts by other Latvians to save the Jews. A house from the ghetto, furnished as it would have been in 1941, had been moved to the memorial and numerous photos illustrated  life in the ghetto. The ghetto was just a few blocks from my hotel, but as I walked around it, there was nothing indicating its former use. There was a memorial where the Great Choral Synagogue of Riga had stood, alongside its ruins.

None of this was very uplifting, so I decided to see if the KGB museum would bring a smile to my face. I don’t mean to be catty, but there has been one in every former USSR city I have visited and there is a certain similarity which, given that the KGB probably used the same playbook everywhere, is entirely expected. The directions were simple- go through the market (watch out for pickpockets), cut through the Old Town, go by the Freedom Monument for 10 blocks and arrive. I carefully cradled my backpack/purse through the market, then let my guard down on the rest of the walk until I arrived at the KGB museum, looked at my backpack and discovered I had been robbed. My wallet, with about 100 Euros, my driver’s license, one of my Visa cards and my debit card (which had not been working in any event), was gone. SHIT…………….

On the plus side, I still had my passport, a Visa card (I always travel with 2) and little bits of cash stashed all over the place. I wasn’t destitute, just pissed off. I spent the next 3 hours doing what I had happily avoided for the past 2 weeks – getting a Latvian SIM card so I could cancel my Visa card and order a replacement Visa and debit cards. If I thought getting robbed was a pain, it was nothing compared to the total stupidity of CIBC card services. They are quite happy to courier a Visa card to my son, but a debit card can only be sent to me and my lack of an address does not have any impact. As for those “free” collect calls to report a stolen card, the SIM card doesn’t recognize collect calls, so after being put on hold for 35 minutes, (we appreciate your business; our first available agent will be right with you), my SIM card ran out. I think the KGB museum would have probably been more pleasant and far less bureaucratic.

Between the Holocaust memorial and the pickpocket, Latvia was leaving a bad taste in my mouth, But it had one more treat: Rundale Palace. Built by the same architect who designed the Hermitage and Summer Palace in St. Petersburg, it was Baroque all the way -over the top design with garish painted panels, gold leaf cherubs and generally, bad taste. Commissioned by a German (the Duke of Courland) but taken by Catherine the Great in 1795 and given to her favourite boy toy of the day (she had many), it was also used by Napoleon’s army in 1812. It suffered serious damage in WWI, but the Soviets, recognizing its potential commercial opportunities, restored it during their occupation.

On the day we visited, it was being used for another bourgeois purpose. The BBC was filming a mini-series based on Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren. Catherine’s death scene will be interesting if filmed-she died of a stroke on her toilet. Which seems like a fitting way to exit Latvia.

Estonian Escapades

My 3 country Baltic tour began in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I was touring with a British based tour company called Explore, which focuses on small group travel for the over 30’s crowd. My tour mates included an American, 2 other Canadians and 12 Brits, along with our Estonian tour leader, Tounal. Aside from Tounal, our average age was about 65, contained 2 smokers, a rocket engineer, 2 Toronto lawyers, a bunch of teachers, a former banker and a lot of IT people, none of whom were able to explain how to use the Fongo phone app. which theoretically allows you to keep your local phone number.

We started our tour in the wonderfully preserved medieval city of Tallinn, with its imposing walls and watch towers which both provided protection from foreign invaders and divided the city into the High Town and the Low Town. Some history is needed to appreciate the significance of High vs. Low in Tallinn, so let me give an abbreviated version:

After the Ice Age (circa 10,000 BC), the ice receded, leaving the Baltics fertile and inhabitable by early hunters/farmers. These people enjoyed a happy, pagan life until 1227 when  German crusaders invaded, forced Christianity on the locals, grabbed the best land and made themselves nobles. These Germans occupied the high land in Tallinn; the locals had the low land. Hence the need for walls. The Germans and the Estonians, who were reduced to serfdom, lived more or less together until Estonia declared Independence in 1917 (from Russia) and took back the land held by the German nobles. In 1939, the last of the Germans were expelled.

Tallinn City Wall and Tower

Of course, plenty of others invaded Estonia. It occupies a strategically important place in the Baltics, bridging east and west, its lands are fertile (rye, flax and wheat) and forested and its seas swarming with fish. It was, at various times, overrun by Swedes, Danes, Poles, more Germans and Russians. Russia seized control of Estonia from Sweden during the Great Northern War between 1700 and 1721 and retained it until the events of the Russian Revolution allowed Estonia to declare independence in August, 1917, whereupon it was promptly invaded by Germany. Following WWI, it was granted independence until the Nazis invaded. The Russians “liberated” it from the Nazis, annexed it into the Soviet Union and didn’t leave until 1991.

The attitude of Estonians to their former Russian occupiers (as they are always referred to) is extremely negative. Notwithstanding the dislike of the Russians, of the 1.3 million people in Estonia, nearly 1/3 are “the Russian minority.” When Russia departed, it left Estonia without social services, insurance, pensions or a currency. It banned all fish from Estonia, since the fish had, overnight, gone bad. Estonians need visas to go to Russia, even though a river dissects the city of eastern Estonian city of Narva from Russia.

Against this backdrop, in Tallinn, we saw the medieval walls of the city (built by Germans), Lutheran churches, Orthodox churches ( for the Russian minority) and a Guild Hall, the 14th century equivalent of an old boys club/community center where important matters were decided and significant events performed, all under the watchful eyes of the married, male nobility. It is perfectly preserved and currently a museum of Estonian history.

Adorning the old market square are buildings of various centuries, numerous restaurants and souvenir shops. When I asked what the famous Estonian dishes are, the response was “rustic.” Most restaurants featured schnitzel, burgers, salmon and dark rye bread. Creamy mushroom sauces and butter grilled fish were ubiquitous, but nothing particularly Estonian. My two significant finds were September raspberries in the fruit market and a decent selection of not too expensive wines in the supermarkets from Europe, Australia and Chile. None from the USA and the 3 vineyards in Estonia did not produce wine in commercial quantities.

Estonia is famous for other things, notably folk singing festivals in every town, every season and marking every event (declare independence? let’s sing about it…). There is also a plethora of kooky statues, honouring everything from poets, scientists, the pig and fisher people:

From the main city of Tallinn, our tour proceeded to the Baltic island of Saaremaa, where we explored the well preserved/reconstructed Bishop’s Palace. It was built as early as 1380 by the German crusaders seeking to consolidate power, but Danes, Swedes and Russians occupied it over the centuries. As medieval castles go, it is fine, but the more offbeat exhibit is one of Soviet life in Estonia during the most recent occupation. The kitchen is miniscule, food is rare, the single bedroom has multiple beds, the bathroom has a toilet and a bucket to heat the water. On the stairs, were different jokes about the Soviets (Lenin was good, Stalin was bad, Gorbachov? We will get to know when he dies….). The exhibit was not a tongue in cheek look back at the Soviet occupation; it was a stark reminder of how difficult those times were.

We visited a fishing village on the island, learned the timetable of the airport (two flights weekly from Tallinn and charter flights from Finland) and other fascinating facts about the area. It was basically a former fishing area which could no longer sustain itself from fishing, so it promoted itself as a tourist destination –the lake country of Estonia. It boasted that hallmark of capitalism, the first golf course in Estonia, naturally constructed after the Russians departed. As a bit of trivia, the first golf course in Russia was not constructed until 1993.

After two days in Saaramaa we returned to the mainland. We looked at the remains of another medieval castle at Viljander and some churches (Lutheran and Orthodox). Our last stop was in the second largest city in Estonia, Turtu, which has the remains of a medieval cathedral, some Lutheran churches and a pub in the old gun armory of the medieval castle, which hosts a weekly beerpong tournament. Naturally, there was a pretty market square, food markets and its symbol, the Fountain of the Kissing Students, reflecting its large student population.


After a week in Estonia, I had my fill of medieval Castles, Orthodox churches, the former Russian occupation and schnitzel. It is a wonderful country- very clean (it is famous for its garbage clean-up campaigns) and lots of historical buildings, and a gentleness or naivete, depending on your point of view, from having true independence for less than 30 years. Time to move on.

Stockholm Sights

I began my sightseeing in Stockholm with a walking tour in the Gamla Stan or Old Town. The tour guide started with a succinct history of Sweden which went something like this: After the Iron Age came the Vikings. They disappeared during the Dark Ages. For 500 years, there were petty kings and lots of battles with Denmark. In 1523, a noble named Gustav consolidated power, made himself king and Sweden as we know it today was born. Gustav’s progeny ruled for a few hundred years, with their most notable legacy being making the Lutheran Church the national religion. This was more a land grab from the existing Catholic Church than a theological metamorphosis, but it stuck. In the early 19th century, the last of the Gustav line died without heir so the Swedes asked Napoleon what to do. Why Napoleon was never explained, but he proposed a wealthy Frenchman who had no royal blood and didn’t speak Swedish. The Swedes accepted and, to this day, his heirs are the Swedish royal family. They have since learned Swedish but their taste in marriage partners still runs toward the common- an American businessman and a reality TV star.

The tour walked us through some of the significant buildings where these events occurred – the Church where the Gustavs are buried, the Royal Palace, the main square which was the sight of a bloodbath of Swedish nobles by the Danes and the narrowest alleyway imaginable, constructed only 35 inches wide to discourage people from using it as a toilet. The streets were all cobblestone,  everything was pretty and the entire tour with the historical commentary took a grand total of an hour and a half.

I cycled to the Vasa Museum, a wonderful monument to total stupidity. There is even a syndrome called the Vasa Syndrome, which refers to a pigheaded ruler who doesn’t listen to anyone and fails to see disaster looming. The Vasa was a ship built quickly under orders from one of the King Gustavs to battle the Poles who were at war with Sweden at the time. King Gustav wanted to impress the Poles, so he ordered that there be two gun or cannon decks, rather than the usual one, but failed to make allowances for the extra weight the second gun deck added. Not surprisingly, on the day of its launch in August, 1628, it gloriously sailed 1300 meters (1400 yards) and sank.

The Vasa was raised in 1961 and carefully reconstructed (98% is original). It is now housed in a purpose built museum with ramps allowing visitors to view it from different levels, along with exhibits showing aspects of life in the city based on artifacts found on the ship. Raising and restoring the Vasa was a mammoth undertaking and it is a fabulous relic, but even I, with a limited knowledge of seaworthiness principles, could tell it was top heavy.

So I turned to a more seaworthy topic- the Vikings – at Vikingaliv, a museum devoted to  Vikings. There I learned that the Viking image as fierce sailors and warriors was not accurate; the museum portrayed them as simple farmers forced into occasional forays of plunder and murder along the coasts of England and Ireland. There were models of Viking ships and references to their extensive trading as far as Constantinople and China, but the focus was on their farm houses, their family life and their burial rites, with special attention paid to a 10th century Arab traveler who wrote of the Vikings practice of weekly baths and daily hair combing. Very enlightening.

Desirous to learn a little more about Swedish history, I went to the aptly named Swedish Museum of History. It told the same story as the tour guide and the Viking museum, with more artifacts but no more detail. I was beginning to understand why all my European history courses had failed to mention Sweden- after the Vikings it was not involved in much except local wars with the Danes, Russians and Poles.

Sweden did produce one noteworthy individual – Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel prize fame and the subject of the Nobel Museum. Occupying a prominent place in the Main Square of the Old City, the Nobel Museum traces the life of Mr. Nobel – born in Sweden, invented dynamite and became stinking rich, lived in various places throughout Europe, died without heirs so bequeathed his entire fortune to the founding and funding of the 5 prizes (chemistry, physics, medicine, peace and literature) with the 6th prize in economics added in 1969. Each is awarded annually with great fanfare in Stockholm.


However wonderful the concept of the Nobel prize or the achievements of its recipients, it does not make for a particularly fascinating museum. A tribute to the Literature Prize winners showcased each person’s name, country, famous works and the reason why he or she was chosen: “So and so was born in …..and raised ….He/she was greatly influenced by ……..The Academy chose so and so because……” Other than giving me ideas of some books to read, the whole thing was boring.

Seeking something more engaging, it was off to the Nobel theatre, which ran short films of 24 Nobel recipients, letting them speak of matters dear to their hearts. The Dahai Lama contributed a film as did Barbara McClintock for her work on corn genetics. Each short film provided appropriate tributes to the awardee, but the entertainment value of the films was fairly limited.

Hoping to see something more interesting, I turned to the artifacts exhibits, but seeing letters written by Einstein or a model of DNA did not excite me. I left shortly afterwards to visit the museum devoted to Sweden’s most famous citizens: ABBA.

ABBA was the iconic music group of the 1970’s. The two ladies (Agnetha and Anni-Frid) and two gents (Bjorn and Benny) were well known singers and song writers in Sweden in their own right, but shot to international stardom after winning the 1974 Eurovision song competition with Waterloo. Hit followed hit followed by movies, a Broadway show (Chess), marriages to each other ,then divorces and the gradual break up of the group.


All is lovingly retold in the ABBA museum, complete with videos, an infectious soundtrack that follows you around, a frightening number of shiny bell bottom pants and the most interactive exhibits one could want. While I limited myself to having my picture taken in the cutouts, other tourists partook in photo sessions, karaoke and the ultimate dance- on stage with holograph ABBA singing and performing the moves to one’s choice of Dancing Queen or Mama Mia. I didn’t have enough hutzpah to get on stage and try, but others did.


It was a fitting end to my time in Stockholm- a pleasant but not too serious museum. The price, as usual in Sweden, was outrageous to my Canadian sense of cost, but I left with positive vibes of Sweden and humming Supertrouper as a left.





Welcome to Europe: Stockholm

After spending a week in Toronto, I flew to Germany en route to Sweden. I arrived at the immigration booth and had the following conversation with the customs officer:

“Where are you going?”


How long?” he inquired.

“Not sure.” I said.

“Welcome to Europe,” he replied, handing me back my passport and waving me through.

And that was that. Just a perfunctory question or two in Germany and I was in Europe for an indeterminate time with no probing whatsoever into my intentions, finances, or hotels. Nothing. I’m guessing that the profile of a middle-aged Caucasian woman speaking English with a Canadian passport doesn’t raise any red flags, but it does make me feel slightly privileged compared to the welcome I suspect awaited the thousands of recent would be refugees.

But on to Sweden. I don’t know if it was the contrast to 10 weeks of driving around the USA or memories of unfortunate first encounters with airport taxi drivers or the clean streets in Stockholm, but I am loving this country. The 5 minute late departure of the flight from Frankfurt was the subject of no less than 3 apologies from the pilot, no immigration awaited me  in Stockholm and the signs for the express train to downtown were in English and easy to follow. My credit card worked in the ticket machine, my seat mate on the train spoke perfect English and the directions to the hotel (go out of the station, turn left and walk for 250 meters) were accurate. Less than an hour after landing, I was happily ensconced in my downtown hotel.

Better yet, there was a bike share rack across the street. I hadn’t been on a bike most of the summer and was anxious to try Stockholm’s much vaunted cycling system.  I bought a bike card (conveniently on sale at my hotel), went to the bike rack and got a bike. It was that simple. No idiotic written cycling test (as in Mexico City) or wait for a code/fob/secret password (like Toronto). Just buy the card, get the bike and go. Which I did – there were bike paths all over the place – in pale red on the road, on sidewalks with different stones or asphalt to keep us apart from pedestrians, some paths raised off the street, other times with guardrails to separate cyclists from the buses. We had our own traffic lights,  crossings, passages under the bridges, even our own lane on roundabouts. Best of all, everyone – cars, pedestrian, other cyclists, even cab drivers – were kind and tolerant. No cars tried to kill me by turning right in front of me, pedestrians mostly respected the lines between bike paths and sidewalks and no crazy cyclists tried to recreate the Tour de France. Everyone was so relaxed, so non-aggressive, so kind. It becomes infectious. I started going around the idiot tourists who stood in the bike paths to get that great picture with an understanding smile. Cars stopped and gestured for me to cross the road even though there was no light or zebra stripes. I moved over for faster cyclists and waited for bike lights to turn green. Unlike Toronto, cycling here does not feel like a death defying act but an enjoyable experience.

Of course, I got lost. A lot. Stockholm is built on a series of islands, some of which are connected by ferries, other by bridges and most with unpronounceable names that were hard to decipher as I cycled over one bridge and onto another island. Google Maps was less than useful. Google Maps would tell me it was 12 minutes by bike away….just turn here, continue on ….street, then go left….etc., but the voice could not be heard on a bike and no cyclists had headphones on (or, for that matter, very few helmets) and once I spent more than an hour with no destination in sight, I turned to more traditional methods of finding my way. I asked people. Most of my conversations started with a polite:

“Hello, do you speak English?”

“Of course” would be the somewhat indignant retort.

After a few “of course” answers I changed tactics slightly. Instead of asking “do you speak English?” I switched to “Hi, can you help me in English?” which was met variously with “certainly”, “absolutely” and “for sure” but not once with “I don’t speak English.” As I said, everything was pretty easy here.

Even the statues are happy

Food was the next order of business. Normally, liquor would also be high on the list, but my pre-trip readings had all warned of the extremely high price of wine. However, as a foreigner, I was entitled to bring in up to 4 liters of wine. Breaking my “no checked baggage” rule, I put a few bottles of Pellar Estates Pinot Grigio in my suitcase. Call me cheap, but the few times I ordered a single glass of mediocre wine in Stockholm, the cost was always over $20.

My principle foray into Scandinavian cuisine was a healthy indulgence at the hotel’s daily breakfast smorgasbord, including all I could eat smoked salmon, cured salmon, cooked salmon, pickled herring, liver pates and a variety of novel (to me) cheeses along with made more traditional omelets, bacon and breads. Good thing I like salmon.

My hotel’s flagship restaurant was Kitchen & Table, a concept by the Ethiopian born, Swedish raised and current Food Network expert chef, Marcus Samuelson, where local sourced vegetables are the stars and proteins ordered as sides. I treated myself to a Jerusalem artichoke served in a parsnip puree and caramelized onions, with braised lamb on the side. Delicious.

Within a few blocks of the hotel were numerous Indian, Italian and sushi restaurants, but nothing that served Swedish meatballs or reindeer. For those, I went to Ostermalm’s Market Hall, the main food hall. Both were available, but neither looked particularly appetizing. A food truck festival was happening nearby, so falafels won out.

Saturday afternoon in downtown Stockholm

Greetings in Sweden took me a bit of getting used to. Everyone uniformly says “heh.” Not, “heh heh” or the current millennial’s favourite “hey” but a guttural, throat clearing “heh.” The first few times it was barked in my direction, it startled me, like someone had caught me doing something I shouldn’t, but after I looked up the English translation (hello) and proper spelling (hej), I warmed up to it. I could not bring myself to use it, preferring “hi” to announce my need for English. Everyone seemed okay with that, because the Swedes I met were generally okay with everything.

So, having mastered the local transportation, food, wine, greetings and my lack of Swedish, I felt ready to tackle the sights. Next up, some museums.