Friday, August 22, 2014

Bambino's Buddy Birthday Party

This is a week of Bambino celebrations (since he made it to that milestone life moment of being one year old). His wonderful Nanny Silvia organized a birthday party with his buddies at the park, complete with a wonderful cake, gifts, and activities. Have you ever seen such a big grin of complete satisfaction and happiness?

Yep, he was totally into this kind of celebration, even pausing for a moment for a group mug shot.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Recognizing sources of comfort through travel

One of the things which happens when I travel, is I learn more about myself. For example, when I returned from my vacation to Scandinavia, one of the things I was most eager to return to was sleeping in the DARK.  Weird, huh?  But in this season, the sun really doesn't set that much and it doesn't get that dark.I was kind of surprised that I was missing darkness.

When I went to China, I returned home and would just sit on the john for a long, long time. I also would use LOTS of toilet paper. Why?  Because I could. I was home and I was getting reacquainted with this source of comfort; a toilet with a seat and soft toilet paper just sitting there, ready to serve and protect.

I don't know where my next travel adventure will be, but I'm pretty sure I'll come back home appreciating something I didn't even know I would miss. For me, traveling has allowed me to learned more about what I'm attached to. It's also helped me recognize some of my habits which probably are in part, due to the culture and area from where I'm based.  Yep. Travel helps you learn more about who you are.     

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bambino's first birthday

Bambino's first birthday included having his mom make his favorite meal - all bite-size portions of real food, which made him feel all the more, grown up.

After dinner was desert....birthday cake!

Then it was time for PRESENTS!!
Bambino began by taking the first gift and very gently opening the card.

He then opened the gift and recognized it as one of the books he had been wanting. He begged Pop to read it to him and during some of the more daring parts of the story, Bambino seemed to gnaw on his hand with bated breath. Soon there was a happy ending and all was right in the world. He was now ready to move onto the next gift.

The next gift required the traditional "heavy heavy hangover thy poor head". This was Bambino's very first experience with this type of gift presentation process, but he was a good sport and wished the giver a winning lottery ticket.

Bambino was now getting the hang of this birthday thing and seemed to like having new toys given to him.

Yep, Bambino's first birthday was pretty fun!  It was a pretty big milestone in his very young life.

The Kiddo is a Year Old!

The little pip-squeak is now a year old.
At first he only wanted to sleep, and sleep, and sleep.

But over time, aka one year, he has learned that it is more fun to not only be awake, but a hoot-and-a-half to run and hide.

A personality seems to have come bundled with this little tyke - he is peppered with curiosity, laughter, and has developed a friendship with a monkey named Curious George.

He makes us laugh and giggle with everything he does. We can't help but be proud as we smile ear-to-ear whenever we are around him.

Happy b-day kiddo!
Yep, you've made the past year a total blast!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Visit to Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden and was ranked by Forbes magazine as the 12 most inventive city in the world. It is also also very much in a strategic location, serving as the gateway between the Atlantic and North Sea.

In 1621 King Gustavus Adolphus came to this area and said, "THIS IS THE PLACE" and even pointed his finger while he said those words.

Later, Brigham Young would repeat Gustavus's famous words in the Western deserts of the USA, but Brigham would use his whole hand to point and his words would carry the emphasis in capital letters, "THIS is the place"!  Stories say that it was these words which forced the seeds to sprout out of the dry dusty land and bloom into a mighty flower they then called Deseret (aka as Salt Lake City),  but that is a different story altogether.

So, back to the travelogue.
We took one of the water tours in a boat. In this photo, you can see a HUGE old sailing ship which is now stuck where it is ported because the low hanging bridges were built after it was docked and the ship is too tall to fit under any of the bridges.

Also in the harbor you can see a tall red and white building which is the home office to Skanska. This building is also known as"the lipstick building" because of its shape and colors.

It was also interesting to see so much "boat parking" available in town. I loved how the parking included ladders up the street so you could drive your boat to work and then hop off and shimmy up the ladder to go to work.

We also passed a hotel with an outdoor pool which seemed to be clutching to the wall as if it were Spiderman. It just seemed a bit odd to have this in a water rich town that has a very brief summer.

And then we also saw food trucks with American food; burgers and tacos. We really did feel like we were home. After all, we had a Brigham Young look-a-like statue standing by us while we could munch on American tacos while waiting to catch a bus back to the ship.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Visit to Berlin

I thought Berlin was going to be dark, dreary and depressing, but it wasn't. I was totally surprised by how much life and energy was in this city.

Our tour began like most others, with a visit to "the wall". Today's "wall" is mostly a display of art and graffiti.

Much of "the wall' has been torn down, but there are reminders imbedded in the street identifying where the wall had been.

There are also places where the wall is part of an outdoor exhibit. In this area, you can see two walls, with an area of grass between them. This areas is known as the killing field. It was in this area that many people were killed as they tried to escape and flee to the West.

I found it interesting that huge blow-ups of some newspaper articles were on the sides of some buildings, such as this 1961 photo of a German soldier fleeing while the West was filming a documentary. The soldier hoped he would not be shot while the cameras were rolling, and he was correct; he lived.

Another rather powerful exhibit is the empty library.This is an easy display to miss because it is within a square and underground, covered by plexiglass.

A reminder about books being burned and destroyed during the Nazi occupation.

The Berlin Monument to the Murdered Jews is another powerful monument, very much resembling a mausoleum.

There are also names of murdered jews embedded in the sidewalks scattered all through Berlin. These are called "Stumbling Blocks" and include the individual names of Jews who used to live on that street and were taken from their home and murdered. The man behind this effort is an artist named Gunter Demnig. Today there are 5,000 of these blocks in Berlin and 45,000 stumbling blocks in 16 European countries.

Yep, I enjoyed Berlin.
I'm one of those people who gets easily overwhelmed in places with bad woojoo (like Alcatraz) or places where lots of people died (like Gettysburg). I expected that in Berlin I would be a basket case and need to spend the night in a bar drowning my pain, but I wasn't.
I was very pleased to see how open and transparent the city was about a rather difficult chapter in their history; they were using it as a tool to teach, learn, and move on from.  For me, I liked my day in Berlin.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Visit to Tallinn, Estonia

Estonia is one of those countries which broke off and became independent when the Soviet Union broke up. The country is located on the Gulf of Finland, and the capital is Tallinn.
Tallinn is known as the Silicon Valley of the Baltic and has many technology companies located there.  In addition, they are focused on becoming a paperless society, with city busses & parks all having wifi, and even voting is now done electronically.
The city has a high level of economic freedom, liberal economic policies, and a  highly diversified economy. It is also reported to be one of the top seven cities in the world with the smartest people.

While visiting in Tallinn, we took the medieval walking tour, which took us back to the 14th century.

Town Square

Narrow (and crowded) streets of Old Tallinn

City gates of old Tallinn

Yes, there is even a McDonalds in the old Medieval City.

Because Tallinn is one of the busiest cruise ports in the Baltic, there were LOTS of cruise ships in the harbor and LOTS of tourists all through town. Even though it was crowded, the atmosphere and feel was rather peaceful. It's would probably be quite FAB outside of the normal tourist season.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The best thing about Russia is the Vodka

Our trip to Russia was a bit disappointing, until we tried their vodka. Things then started to look much more brighter.  Russia is known for their vodka, but we also learned
  • vodka must be served frozen.
  • must be served in a frozen glass.
When we told our waiter we had never had frozen vodka before, nor ever seen it served in a frozen glass, he thought we were joking. He had never heard of such barbarics being done to vodka.

So, if you no longer want to be a vodka barbarian, here are the guidelines on how you are supposed to prepare, drink, and taste vodka.  

My Visit to Russia

Before going to Russia, I didn't know much about Russia except what I was exposed to on TV. As a result, I thought the usual male attire was being shirtless or at least wearing shirts that were always unbuttoned and open.

So, I was a bit surprised (and disappointed) to go to St. Petersburg and find the men fully clothed.

When we marched up the stairs of the Hermitage, one of the most well known museums in the world (which was built to display Catherine the Great's art collections), my expectations started to drop a bit. You see, there is no air conditioning in most of the building and it was 90 degrees outside, making it rather hot and stuffy inside. As we climbed the stairs, most everyone was drenched in sweat from the heat.

I realize there was no air conditioning in Catherine the Great's day so perhaps my expectations were a bit out-of-whack, but I also thought masterpiece artwork required temperature and humidity control, but apparently not in most of the museum (however, the small gold room DOES have temperature & humidity control).

Our cute young Russian-male-English-speaking tour guide (see arrow) led us around the museum to view what he considered as the treasured masterpieces. I couldn't help but notice most the pieces he showed us were of naked people, which told me that subconsciously he was wanting to remove his sticky and sweat-drenched t-shirt or it was his way of trying to help us get cooled.

One couple in our tour group was pick-pocketed in the Hermitage, which we learned is a rather common experience for "older" tourists in Russia and the security system is having mostly older ladies (like me!) sitting in a chair in each room.

I was also surprised this world-class museum appeared a bit run down and shabby in several areas. (We joked how the funds were probably being diverted to take over the Ukraine).

St. Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia, their former capital, and considered the most beautiful of all the cities in Russia. The side of the city that we saw in our tour did not lend itself to seeing a beautiful city. We saw a lot of those typical communistic architectural design apartments you see everywhere in eastern Europe.

However, we learned that others on the ship saw many places in the city that were much more beautiful, like this

and this

and they even took hyrofoil boat rides to see the city.

Our St. Petersburg experience was a tad disappointing in comparison with the other places we visited, but much of this was based on the tours we took. Others on the ship raved about their experience and many of them took private tours they got through websites like TripAdvisor. This was a good lesson learned - do your homework and make sure your tour is highly rated and covers the specifics of what you want to see and do.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Visit to Catherine the Great's Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia

On a recent cruise to Scandinavia, we stopped in St. Petersburg Russia. This was considered the crown jewel of the whole trip so we were all excited to be dazzled and wowed.

We signed up to see Catherine the Great's Palace, in part because she was a powerful woman who reigned a great empire, and her summer home had a reputation of being made out of gold. Now, in our day, Marilyn Monroe led us to believe it was DIAMONDS that were a girls best friend, but back in Catherine's day, it must have been gold. And lots of it.  Needless to say, we wanted to go see this woman's bling.

Here is an aerial view of Catherine the Great's summer palace. As you can see, the place looks VERY French, which is what was the fashion during her reign.

When you walk in the first room, your mouth drops. There is soooooo much gold!  and it isn't just ONE gold room. The whole place is filled with room after room after room of those Rococo style gold plated rooms.

Gold with porcelain

Another room

The dining room

The ballroom

Needless to say, there was a LOT of bling at her palace.
After a few minutes, I got rather sick of looking at it.  I was overloaded with all that dazzle.
But then we went to a different room - the AMBER ROOM!
I was excited to see something different, but it, too, was rather ornate and gaudy.

This photo shows you the type of detail in each of the amber pieces. Even the frames were made of amber.

Then I learned this room is a REPLACEMENT of the original Amber room. The original was stolen by the Nazi's during WWII and is believed to have been taken to Konigsberg Castle which was burned down shortly after Königsberg surrendered to occupying Soviet forces.

The Amber room is more than 55 square meters and contains over 6 ton of amber in 350 different shades of amber. It took over ten years to construct the replacement room, being completed in 2003. It was then dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder.

Here is a statue of Catherine the Great. Biographies say she knew she was not a beauty. In fact,  in the book "Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, she is quoted as saying “I do not know whether as a child I was really ugly, but I remember well that I was often told that I was and that I must therefore strive to show inward virtues and intelligence. Up to the age of fourteen or fifteen, I was firmly convinced of my ugliness and was therefore more concerned with acquiring inward accomplishments and ws less mindful of my outward appearance.” Perhaps this contributed to why she surrounded herself with things she considered beautiful.

Catherine the Great was the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of sixty-seven. Her reign was called Russia's golden age, and by gold, they really do mean gold.

This is a portrait of her during her reign

Don't ya just love how she sits like a man with her legs apart? She doesn't seem to be one who would follow the rules.