For some, September is more of a time of renewal than New Years or the arrival of spring. Transitions are very present as our kids return to school and start a new level of learning, faced with new goals and new challenges. Many of us parents are shaking off two months of less predictable schedules and summer habits of overindulging in sweets or less monitoring of screen time. It’s also a time when my own kids show some hints of renewed motivation. In preparation for Quinton’s first week of school, he declared that he is going to try to stay more motivated, work harder in school and get fit. George is even encouraging each of us to embark on 100 days of doing “something.” And of course, in choosing my own “something,” I came up with a long list of items. Hmmm, perhaps I will try to implement them all and hope for at least one to stick.
The varying schedules that we are shaking off are from traveling for the month of August in northeastern Europe. With no place to live in Spain for the month and with the Mediterranean humidity as it is, we decided to head north for a more comfortable climate and new experiences. Not only did we cool down but we also discovered some amazing places, learned about some fascinating histories, and of course, ate lots of great food.
Our journey started in Poland where we spent time in 4 different cities, Krakow, Warsaw, Toruń, and Gdańsk. We were sobered up right away spending our second day on a tour of Auschwitz, the concentration camp. Exploring the Jewish Quarter, driving past Schindler’s Factory, and walking through the Jewish Cemetery, all in Krakow, were eye-opening, as well, and then we topped it all off with watching the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. So we all sat with the reality of the Holocaust for a bit which was important and impacting. Krakow struck me as a creatively charming city as well with several green spaces, a food truck culture, and bookstores and cafes lining the side streets with menorah-shaped iron fencing. Pork fat is a common delicacy (we were even given lard to spread on our bread instead of butter) and though the sauerkraut was amazing, we were disappointed by how much bad gas it caused.
Poor Warsaw had to measure up to our first impression of Poland and was a little less interesting than Krakow with the exception of its charming old town. We visited the Copernicus Science Museum, learned about the Warsaw Uprising, and went on a food adventure to try traditional poor people’s food in Poland (which again, was based in pork fat) only to find the eatery filled with Poles dressed as soldiers from World War II to honor the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.
Following Warsaw, we trained to Toruń, a much smaller city, slightly northwest, and where George described the old town as “one big gingerbread house.” The origin of gingerbread after the spices were claimed from Asia, Toruń has a couple gingerbread museums and one in which we had fun making our own. But the best part of Toruń was the gingerbread ice cream, which Davis decided was the best ice cream ever! In addition, Toruń happens to be the sister city of Philadelphia, my hometown!
Finally we spent a few days in Gdańsk, where World War II all started, as it was the first place to be bombed by the Germans. George and I got swept away at the World War II Museum, we visited the Malbork Castle (the largest castle in the world in terms of hectors), as well as Sopot, a nearby beach town with a long pier on the Baltic Sea. REALLY GOOD fresh grapefruit juice and sorbet seemed to be a specialty and we loved discovering how Gdańsk has a tradition of eating something sweet before every meal.
Our next stop was Riga, Latvia. It reminded us a little of Lucca, Italy, as we stayed in an apartment in old town looking down on all the nightlife and shops. Roosters topped off most of the steeples, supposedly to ward off evil, and we had a great dinner one night where they used to serve beer to the Vikings and currently, they encourage you to eat with your fingers, just like in the Middle Ages and it was delicious! George and I also discovered “The Most Romantic Café in Riga,” a delightful hole in the wall, where we exchanged greetings with a young Latvian couple who were taking a break from parenting as they were served 4 different pieces of cake to enjoy with their wine-just our types! Finally, to appease the Americans in us, (mostly the kids) we indulged in a pancake/smoothie breakfast at an American restaurant followed by some go-karting fun. George and I had eggs benedict served on a pancake-ummm, a one and done kind of thing for me.
After several shorter stops of 2-3 days each, we flew to Estonia for a two-week visit with our au pair, Merle, her sister, Kirsika, and her sister’s boyfriend, Jaak, who are all now considered “family.” Merle finally got to show us her country and from the moment our plane landed to when we left, she toured us around, educated us and shared numerous fun excursions beyond our expectations.
Estonia is a very young country, having only gained full independence about 30 years ago. Impressive is how they obtained independence, through peaceful demonstrations of unity with the other Baltic countries and through singing, yes singing! The Singing Revolution (https://singingrevolution.com/) refers to a series of events between 1989 and 1991 that contributed to the independence of Estonia when hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered and sang together to represent their determination to become free from Russian occupation. The Baltic Way or The Baltic Chain in 1989 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Way) was a historical day when Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians all held hands across the three countries at the very same moment to represent their unity and independence from Russia. For the ultimate demonstration in 1991, when the Russians drove their tanks into Tallinn, Estonia to take over the TV tower in order to maintain some control, the Estonians held hands again, surrounding the TV tower and resisting pressure from the Russians which lead to the Russians surrendering.
We spent our first night in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, having a personal tour of the old town and for my birthday, we ate at a restaurant that reenacts the Middle Ages. The entire restaurant was lit by candlelight and we were served traditional Estonian food; goose liver pate, onion jam, lentils, salmon in nut sauce, turnips, barley, sausages made of wild boar, elk and bear and sauerkraut followed by rose pudding for dessert. Just another Monday night meal. The following days in Tallinn were spent visiting an open air museum, a powerful memorial honoring Estonians who were taken off to Siberian prison camps, the famous TV tower where the Estonians won independence and the Creative Hub where old warehouses from Soviet times have been converted into cool new restaurants and shops. We also went to the new Fotografisca museum (https://www.fotografiska.com/) and enjoyed an incredible photography exhibit by Jimmy Nelson (https://www.jimmynelson.com/), a British photographer known for his photos of indigenous people from all over the globe.
Following our city tour of Tallinn, we ventured to the southern countryside for a few days. Merle gave us a tour of her hometown, Rõuge, we hiked through a cranberry bog (in snow shoes so we didn’t fall through), visited a sandstone mine, and camped for a night in Tentsile Tree Tents, tents that are suspended off the ground and hung between 3 trees, like a hammock (https://tentsile.co.uk/). How fun! Following our camping adventure, we had a rush of adrenalin driving a couple kilometers across the Russian border. A very rural border surrounded by woods, we didn’t have to go through any formal border crossing but we were not allowed to stop the car, get out to walk around or even take photos. Apparently, there are cameras everywhere set in the trees and border patrol hiding in the woods who will take you in for questioning if they catch you holding your camera up to the car window! Yikes.
Probably the newest experience for our family was adapting to the sauna culture, widespread in most of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. Typically, these families would all sauna together in the nude; brothers, sisters, parents, in-laws, etc., but our Estonians were nice enough to accommodate our American comforts by wearing bathing suits. We experienced sauna at a community spa and at the neighborhood lake but the most fun was riding down a river on a boat with a sauna on board so we could sit in the hot sauna and jump into the cold river and repeat and repeat. Davis won the prize for Sauna Master as he repeated this activity more than any of us. Somehow his body of skin and bones could tolerate more than any of us going back and forth between the extreme water temperatures.
Hadley probably ate all the blueberries at Merle’s family farm and became known as our Kiiking Master. Kiik means ‘swing’ in Estonian and the sport of kiiking was invented in Estonia in the 1990’s, which involves a person increasing the momentum on these type of swings with the goal of passing over the spindle. Hadley didn’t quite make it over the spindle but she jumped on these swings any chance she got and increased her momentum each time. Hadley is also our little shopper. As much as she seemed to be enjoying the outdoors in Estonia, I woke her the next morning at our campsite to hear her say “You woke me up and I was dreaming of Target!” I guess you can take the girl out of America but you can’t take the American out of the girl.
While our Estonian adventures continued… Merle was kind enough to keep the kids overnight while George and I traveled back to Tallinn to attend the Andrea Bocelli concert and then we reunited with the kids in Tartu, the second largest city and a university town. The drive back to Tallinn included a visit to the Upside Down House (see photos as they are the only way to describe the disorienting experience) and once we returned to the city, the kids spent a morning skim boarding on the beach, Kirsika made us some yummy smoothie bowls and we got a little bit of chill time. Finally, we had a one-day excursion to Helsinki, Finland. This Nordic city has the most modern architecture that we had seen yet and Quinton’s friends, from camp earlier this summer, lead us around a famous island fortress followed by sharing a delicious dinner and some scootering around a lake.
After a fun two weeks, we said our goodbyes to our Estonians and hopped a cruise ship (our first and hopefully last) overnight to Stockholm, Sweden. This was a particularly meaningful part of our trip for me, as I spent my junior year abroad studying at The University of Stockholm 27 years ago and I have not been back since. I tried to take in the surreal-ness of our visit as we walked around Gamla Stan (old town), visited the Vasa Museum (a giant Viking ship that sank in the main harbor and was then recovered 300 years later) and walked the university campus. We sang our way through the ABBA Museum (a new addition to Stockholm’s cultural offerings) and had a fun two-day kayak and camping excursion in the Swedish Archipelago with two other great tourists and our lovely guide, Erika. We were pleased to learn how Sweden is committed to environmental protection and advocacy probably more than any other country and we took full advantage of Fika, a Swedish tradition of taking a break from work and responsibilities to sit, have a cup of coffee, a Swedish pastry, and most importantly, be in relationship with others. Watch this video for a fun description of Fika: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRIeytEXGhQ
We are grateful to our Swedish friends, whom we actually met in Spanish class in Spain, for putting us up in their beautiful guest home outside of Stockholm. Their island home provided us with a very comfortable place to relax and a dock from which to swim off of into the Baltic Sea as we recovered from our city excursions.
On the second of September, we flew back to Spain, moved into a new apartment, and helped prepare Quinton for a quick turnaround to start school. As we begin our second and final year in Spain, we have new living quarters and one new school with which to familiarize ourselves but we have established friendships, favorite coffee and food spots and familiar routines which is bound to offer us another enriching but slightly different experience.