Back Home, Lessons Learned

The choir trip to the Baltic States turned out to be far more than I had expected, mainly because I had not expected very much. Before we left I had viewed the experience as primarily coming along for the ride. If you have been following the blog, however, you know that is was more than that. Here are two big takeaways for me:

  • The horror of the Holocaust and how it–or something like it– could happen again.

In June of 1941, the world pretty much knew that Hitler was up to no good and that Jews were being treated badly. Shops owned by Jews in Germany and Poland had been closed or destroyed, books burned and Jews beaten, humiliated, and disenfranchised. Some had been rounded up and carted off to places unknown. Few, however, had any idea of what Hitler was actually up to, including those in Lithuania, who had no inkling of what was about to happen to them. Lithuania was low hanging fruit for the Nazis because it was small, defenseless, and had the highest percentage of Jews anywhere in the world, about 25 percent of the country’s population. Five months later almost all were dead, shot and dumped into mass graves—probably more than 150,000 men, women and children with another 50,000 or so men retained for hard labor for the war effort, almost all of whom would eventually die in concentration camps. Jews were being shot at a rate exceeding 1,000 persons a day. Fewer than ten percent were able to escape or survive in hiding. A similar fate was in store for Latvia with a smaller Jewish population of around 70,000. The smaller number of Jews in Estonia, fewer than 10,000, got wind of what was happening, and most escaped before the Nazis arrived, mainly by boat.

Meanwhile the world stood by, doing nothing.

What do you make of that? Were (are) the Germans “evil people” for turning a blind eye or, even worse, participating in these atrocities? Were (are) the Christians in the Baltic states “evil people” for allowing this to happen in their countries, not fighting back, and even aiding and abetting the enemy?  Why did  other countries not do more to help the Jews? How could this have happened?  Could something like this happen again?

The answer is, I believe, not only that something like this could happen again but that something like this has already happened in places like Rwanda, Myanmar, Cambodia and in China during the Cultural Revolution. But I also think the answer is no, that the Germans as a people  were not–and are not– “evil people,” nor were the Christians who did not do more to protect the Jews in the Baltic States. Nor were the World War II Japanese, many of whom did terrible things during the war, nor the Chinese people, some of whom tortured and murdered intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, nor the Russians who enthusiastically supported Stalin’s atrocities. Embry and I have been to all of these countries. We have met and talked to people and have made friends in some of these places. These people are not any more “evil” than the rest of us. And we Americans have our grim past with slavery and Jim Crow. I grew up in the South during the tail end of the Jim Crow period and as a child and adolescent did not question whether there was anything innately wrong with segregation.

Yes, evil exists in this world, and clearly there are evil people. But the potential for evil is in all of us. It is part of the human condition. If the circumstances are right, “good people” can do heinous things. We humans are basically herd animals. We follow the leader. We do as we are told.  Most of us are wimps. We do not take big risks, especially when the consequences of not following orders leads to dire consequences for us.

That is why leaders are so important, and a bad–or evil– leader is capable of inflicting harm on human beings far exceeding anything we can contemplate. My guess is that in the spring of 1941 if someone had told a Jewish Lithuanian that in five months, almost every Jew in the country would be dead or doing hard labor, that person would have said, no way, no how.

And that is why right now in the United States of America, President Trump scares the bejesus out of me. This is not to imply that he is a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao, but rather that his leadership is taking us in dangerous directions, especially with regard to immigrants, the new “enemies,” just as the Jews were cast as enemies. On top of that his personality is certainly leaning authoritarian. And we do not know how this story is going to end.

  • The resilience of the human spirit. 

This is the other side of the coin of the human condition.  While we humans—all of us—have the capacity for evil, we also have the capacity for good. There were brave people during the Holocaust who came to the aid of the Jews, protecting them in their attics and basements. Many paid for this with their lives. In this troubled world, there are ordinary people who are heroes and saints. 

And we humans come back. After they had experienced the Holocaust in 1941 and then the Soviet Occupation from 1945-1998, you would think that those in the Baltic States would be a beaten and downtrodden people. But no. These countries are now thriving in many ways. They have strong educational systems, universal, affordable health care; and all are stable democracies. 

The churches, almost all of which were locked up or converted to other uses, are all now open and back on their feet, many having been renovated and restored. While most do not attend church except on Christmas and Easter (Lithuania, which is Catholic rather than Lutheran, being the exception), you still get the idea that religion has an important role in the life and culture of these countries.

There are few signs of poverty, and as far as their troubled history goes, the horrendous record is there for people to see in museums and read about in history books, but they have moved on. It has taken some time. The end of the Soviet period was  30 years ago, a full generation. But if you did not know the history and were visiting for the first time, what would impress you would be the preservation of the medieval old towns, the shops and outdoor cafes, and the positive energy. You would not have a clue about the suffering they have been through.

Part of what has fueled the comeback of the Baltic is their culture and language. While we were in Lithuania, there was a huge cultural festival in Latvia, which we watched on television. Tens of thousands of people participated, wearing colorful dress, singing folksongs and folk dancing. These songs, dances and music have been going on for centuries, long before Latvia became a nation-state in the Twentieth Century, and you get the idea that the fundamental cornerstones of family, religion, culture, and language will long outlast the politics and governance in these countries or, for that matter, in any country. That countries go through periods of hell and despair and then bounce back gives me hope that maybe somehow, someway, our fragile planet will survive long term the challenges of human conflict and profound social and environmental change that we are experiencing right now.

Baltic Blog 9: Helsinki

Finland was our last stop before returning to the U.S. It turned out to be more than we had hoped for. My advice: Go there. Helsinki is a world class city, which I think deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Like the three Baltic capitals we visited, it is worthy to be on any bucket list. 

After a shaky start we settled into our “backup living  unit”—a comfortable “2ndHome” (a local competitor of Airbnb) studio apartment, located about a half block from the first, ill-fated, Airbnb apartment. (I am petitioning the Airbnb executives to require the owners of that apartment to stipulate that at least one guest must be over six-feet-six or guests must bring their own stepladder.)

Our first full day in Helsinki was one of those like we had in Vilnius, drop-dead-gorgeous, with temperatures near 70, a gentle breeze, and the few clouds that occasionally decorated the blue sky looking like cotton candy. This is when the typical Finn orders a cappuccino or a beer in one of the cozy, outside cafes and sighs, “Ok, it is worth the 18 hours a day of  December darkness and  the bitter cold from  November through March.”

We spent almost the entire day on a Hop-on, Hop-off bus getting a good feel for this compact city of only about 650,000 (1.3 million metro). The entire population of  Finland is only 5.5 million, less than the population of greater Washington DC in a country roughly the size of  California, though admittedly few people live in the northern part of Finland. Helsinki is different from  the other Baltic cities we visited due to its decidedly international flavor. Streets are buzzing with people of all shapes, sizes, languages, and complexions, and restaurants advertise in addition to Scandinavian food, Japanese, Italian, Asian, French, and American  (McDonalds, Burger King and Subway).

The closest city to Helsinki that I can think of in the U.S. would be San Francisco because the Baltic Sea—today sparkling blue, not the gray mist we experienced the day before– surrounds three-quarters of the city, which is also hilly like San  Francisco (though not as extreme). Boating  activity of all sorts was underway in the harbor, and most of the downtown pedestrian malls and sidewalks were in heavy use. Cafes, fancy stores and beautifully manicured parks seemed to pop up around every corner. On a day like today if you concluded that the entire population of the city was outside basking in the delightful weather, you probably would not be that far off.

What immediately stands out about Helsinki compared to the Baltic state capitals we have visited on this trip is the absence of a Medieval old town section, the presence of tower cranes with buildings going up, a lot of newer buildings mixed in with the old, far fewer churches, and fewer, conspicuous tourists. While there is a lot of energy and vitality, the atmosphere is more laidback, friendly, and casual than you find in DC or New York. Graffiti, while present as it is in almost every European city, is not as hideously prominent as it is elsewhere. Practically everyone speaks at least some English, many fluently. Like in the U.S. scooters are now ubiquitous, as are bikes,  and skateboarding would appear to be the national sport. On a day like today it would be hard not to fall in love with this special place.

The next two days we spent in Helsinki were much like the first except that since it was a weekend, the mood was even more festive, casual and relaxed. The highlight for me was a two-hour, “canal tour” aboard a small, sightseeing boat, which motored  around the Helsinki harbor and  a dozen or so of the myriad islands that dot the Baltic around Helsinki. We bought a three-day “Helsinki pass,” which allowed us to hop on and  hop off the tourist buses all we wanted to,  to use  public transportation at no charge (buses and trolleys), free museum admissions, a free harbor tour, and a free train ride to the airport. We took advantage of all the options  though whether we actually saved money is not certain. What is certain is that we saw a whole lot of the city that we would not have seen otherwise and loved it.

Now you may recall that we often choose  bargain  options such as taking public transportation whenever we can, staying in Airbnbs or windowless , subterranean rental units rather than hotels, and avoiding fancy restaurants. This is due to Embry’s Scotch-Irish DNA, which tends to prevent her from choosing a more expensive option when there is a cheaper one available. She can’t help it—unless I put my foot down, as I do occasionally, such as insisting on business class when flying overseas. That is why I was somewhat surprised when Embry enthusiastically announced she had made a reservation  at a restaurant for our “goodbye, farewell dinner,” called Olo, which had gotten a rating of four stars in the Michelin Guide, the highest rating of all  the restaurants in Helsinki, and considered in the guide to be one of the best restaurants in the world. There was no mention of prices. There was a hint via email from the restaurant, however, warning that for any guest that did not show up, the credit card on file for the reservation would be charged 69 euros and that we should allow a minimum of three hours for our dining experience.  I smiled skeptically wondering if Embry knew what exactly we might be getting ourselves into.

Walking about two miles from our hotel to the restaurant, we were a few minutes late and panting as we opened a heavy, wooden door in a nondescript, six-story, aging building facing the waterfront. A tiny sign that read “oLo” hung over the door. To describe the décor as “understated” would itself be an understatement, but the restaurant did have a kind of worn, old-world charm with very high ceilings and green drapes that blocked out light from the high windows. A cheerful hostess greeted us warmly and immediately escorted us to a small, quiet room containing four tables, all occupied except the one reserved for us. We later learned that the restaurant has only 15 tables situated in four separate rooms and can accommodate no more than 50 people at one time. 

Within a minute or so after being seated, our main waiter, a guy in his early thirties, dressed in a black vest, white shirt, black pants, a red bow tie, and sporting a handlebar mustache, greeted us. He spoke perfect English with a British accent.  During our three-hours in the restaurant, we were served by four, attentive, wait staff—all in their thirties and several with full tattoos on their right arm. (Why the right arm and not the left or both?) In addition three chefs, also about the same age, who were dressed in full white, chef’s attire, complete with apron and hat, also checked on us from time to time. After a waiter or waitress had carefully placed a dish in its proper place, moments later one of the chefs would appear, kneel  down so that his head was even with ours and then  describe the dish in detail– where it came from, how it was prepared, and what subtle flavors to look for. The menu listed the names of the entire staff that were on duty that day—some 19 people, a ratio of almost one staff person for every two dinner guests. 

When the waiter with the handlebar mustache explained that this was a six course, fixed price, tasting menu, Embry asked if we were supposed to pick one offering from each of the six courses. He smiled and replied that all the items listed in the menu would be served—some 19 in all.

Within a minute or two the first item was carefully placed on the table before us —a rare kind of Russian caviar, elegantly presented in a small bowl resting on top of round stones. And so the evening began with only moments between the time we had devoured a delicious morsel and another one, even tastier, was carefully placed before us, then meticulously described by the chef who prepared it. 

To be accurate, I have to say that since the portions were not large, eating or “tasting” 19 items was not pure gluttony. But it came close: Several varieties of rare shell fish, fresh fish from the Baltic, local mushrooms, fresh garden vegetables hand picked that day, various varieties of carefully prepared beef or pork, delicious sauces, and reindeer liver, you name it. Most, but not all dishes, were Scandinavian. Each savory dish was not so much to be eaten as “experienced,” and that is what we did. And of course, each offering was paired with the appropriate wine. Three hours later we had polished off 18 dishes plus the most delicious dessert I had ever tasted and were ready for the bill. 

When it was finally time to go, I fully expected the six or seven people that had so enthusiastically taken care of us to rush out and embrace us with goodbye hugs. It was one of those evenings.

 I did finally get up the courage to tell Embry how much it was (a figure which will remain secret); and in a few seconds after the look of horror disappeared from her face, she smiled sheepishly. Her Scottish ancestors would be turning over in their graves. We both agreed it was worth every euro, the dining experience of a lifetime. And it was a fine way to finish up the trip. 

The time we spent in this part of the world, just short of three weeks, turned out to be something very special. These countries were certainly not on our bucket list; and had it not been for the choir tour, we would have never gotten there. Life, it turns out, is a series of chances and opportunities taken or passed by. We both are grateful we took this one.

Guest Baltic Blog from Embry: The Music Part

Joe has been filling you in about our very enjoyable trip to the Baltic countries, but I thought I would write a short “guest blog” about the singing part of the trip.  (I know he has some readers who are fellow singers, who might be wanting a bit more detail.)

The idea for this trip got started when I was invited by Ben Hutchens, the former choir director at our church, All Souls Episcopal Church, to sing with his current choir (Westminster Presbyterian in Alexandria, Va.) on their tour to Latvia and Estonia.  I had always wanted to visit this part of the world, and this gave me a good excuse to go along as an extra alto singer.  Joe threw up his hand to go along as a “non-singer,” and we added stays in Lithuania and Finland on at the beginning and end of the trip to round it out.

Ben’s choir brought about 30 singers and bell ringers, and there were other non-singers and a few of Ben’s other choir members for a total group of 42.  He picked a wonderful repertoire of mostly American music (with some British).  If you are a singer, particularly in a church choir, take a look at what we sang (if not, skip down!):

Laudate Nomen Domini:  Christopher Tye

Panis Angelicus:  Thomas Pavlechko (modern American composer)

Chorale for Bells (bell choir)

Ubi Caritas: Maurice Duruffle

O Nata Lux:  Charles Villiers Stanford

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree:  Stanford Scriven

There is No Rose:  Donald MacDonald  (modern American composer, sung by a female octet)

Easter Anthem: William Billings

How Can I Keep from Singing:  Sondra K. Tucker (bell choir)

How Can I Keep from Singing:  Robert Lehman

My God is a Rock:  Alice Parker and Robert Shaw

Ain’t a That Good News: William Dawson

In His Care-O:  William Dawson

In addition, an organist (from another Northern Virginia church) performed two pieces. (I do not have the information on the names or composers of those pieces, as they were not in the printed program and I didn’t recognize them.) She performed them beautifully.  That was challenging, since each organ was different and she had little rehearsal time. She also conducted three of our pieces so that Ben could fill in with his nice voice and sing along with us.  All pieces were performed A Capella.

We performed all of this music in three concerts, one each in Riga (Latvia), Parnu (Estonia), and Tallinn (Estonia)—about a 1 ½ hour program with no intermission. We also participated in the Sunday service in Riga.  In each case, the concerts were in beautiful historic Lutheran churches with good acoustics. We had (barely) enough time to rehearse together ahead of each program, but obviously we got better as the trip went on and learned how to sing the music!

The concerts were all well attended, and the audiences were so attentive and enthusiastic. (The especially were fascinated with the bell ringing, which does not seem to be common here.)  Ben had prepared an encore, and it was requested at the end of each concert by enthusiastic clapping, which in Europe proceeds from random clapping to the audience clapping in unison with a loud “CLAP, CLAP, CLAP…” until you give the encore.  We were glad to do it, since their enthusiasm made it worth the effort of preparing the music and traveling so far to perform it.  In spite of this, I think we were all relieved when the last concert was over, and we could take off our concert dress and just relax.

This is my fourth choir tour to Europe, starting with a tour with my mother in 1988. We joined a tour of the Cathedral Choral Society and Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, which performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the old square of Warsaw with the Warsaw Opera Chorus.  It was just before the Berlin Wall came down.  This was a life-changing experience for me.  I have never forgotten the thrill of singing in a historic place, and ho–in that setting–Beethoven’s joyful music seemed to overcome the sadness from the past and lead to optimism about the future.  Indeed, at just that moment, all was about to change dramatically for Poland and all of Eastern Europe.

The Baltic Countries also suffered horribly through the World Wars and the Cold War, but they never gave up hope.  Singing was a huge factor in uniting the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia ( through the “Singing Revolution”).  Now an entirely new, free society has emerged. As with my first choir tour to Poland, this choir tour made me feel that I could be just a tiny part of that wonderful, historic process.  Once I finally learned the notes and rhythms, I began to think about the words of the songs we sang, and how appropriate they were for the place and time.  I will close with the words of “How Can I Keep from Singing”:

I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—how can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die, the Lord my Savior liveth.

What though the darkness gather round, songs in the night he giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that refuge clinging.

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes, the clouds grow thin; I see the blue above it.

And day by day this pathway smooths, since I first learned to love it.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing.

All things are mine, since I am His.  How can I keep from singing?

Baltic Blog 7: On Our Own Again!

The choir tour was terrific! But now it is over.  At 2:00 pm we boarded the ferry to Helsinki, a three hour cruise about 75 miles due north on the misty, gray, Baltic Sea. We were free from follow-the-leader, group conformity and were on our own to explore the nooks and grannies of another interesting and fascinating foreign land.

The ferry ride was aboard a huge vessel along with, I would guess, several thousand other passengers, many families with toddlers and lots of baby carriages. After all, this is the height of the summer tourist season even though it is cloudy with drizzle and temperatures  in the mid 50s. 

The odd thing about the huge ferry was that the only place where there were any seats available for passengers to sit was at a dining table in one of the several gigantic dining areas or in one of the several hundred staterooms that were unoccupied and cordoned off. Embry was lucky to grab a seat in one of the small eateries, “Coffee and Joy,” the latter of which I would have eagerly ordered if I could have found it. About five minutes after we had sat down, a waitress appeared and alerted us that the only people allowed to sit there were paying customers. Unable to find “joy,” I bought a small sandwich and a coke and then left Embry with her green tea in order to find an empty passenger seat somewhere, which we would need after we ceased being “paying customers.” No luck. I investigated each of the eight decks of the ship only to find hundreds of people sitting or lying  on floors  on every deck. What is wrong with this picture, I could not help asking—hundreds of state rooms just sitting there empty and passengers forced to sit on the floor, if they could even find an open spot? Please.

Back to “Coffee and Joy” and the purchase of a fruit cup to meet the paying customer criteria. That was enough to allow us to remain for the full three hour crossing.

The entry under steel gray skies into the channel leading to Helsinki was quite stunning with hundreds of islands, many inhabited, and a large number of vessels ranging from mega cruise ships to tiny dinghies. We were easily able to get a cab, which took us through the thriving center city to our pre arranged Airbnb apartment, about a 20-minute and 45 euro cab ride. Feeling confident and liberated by  being on our own, we found the address and entered through the large front door, which had been left open by someone just exiting. It was a green, five-story, stucco building on a quiet side street in what would appear to be a nice part of the city. As instructed we took the lift up to floor five, found our unit, and then started following instructions regarding entry, just like we did with the Airbnb in Vilnius when we ended up in the dungeon. 

First step: open the box above the door and get the key.

First problem: The box above the door was located about six inches above the sill—a reach of at least eight feet. I stood on my tiptoes and could barely touch the bottom of the box. There was no way I could read–let alone reset–any code, which was on a very small dial near the top of the box.

First solution: Embry, at risk of life and limb, would stand on my suitcase and try to reach the dial. After several failed efforts, she proudly announced that she had managed to reset the code according to the instructions, a Herculean effort to be sure.

Second problem: Nothing happened. The box did not open. At further risk of serious injury, she tried again and again. Nothing. I then gave it a try standing on my tiptoes and using every ounce of brute strength in me, admittedly not a lot. No movement.

Second solution: Try to reach the owner. 

Third problem: The only way to reach the owner was via the internet. No Wi-Fi connection. You had to be inside the unit to find the password.

Third solution: Fiddle with Embry’s smart phone, hoping for a lucky break. I do not know what or how Embry did it, but somehow she managed to get a number for the owner and to call that number. All this took about thirty minutes—it was by then almost seven pm– during which most of the time I sat silently on the stairs with my head in my hands, sulking, exhausted, and pondering what it would be like to be homeless and on the street in Helsinki.  I managed to get up the courage at one point to ask Embry if she could remind me why we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. She gave me a faint, forced smile.

Fourth problem: No answer. Embry waited for fifteen minutes then tried again. Still no answer. She was able to leave a callback number but no callbacks. It was now starting to get late—not dark, that does not happen until eleven o’clock—but close to eight, and that was late for us since we had had a meager lunch and no dinner. Spending the night on the street was starting to look more like a real possibility.

Fourth solution: Ask Siri on my iPhone: “hotels near me.” Bingo! In five seconds a bunch of names and addresses appeared, one being only .1 kilometer away, practically across the street. It was described as a studio apartment managed by a company called 2ndHomes, with the adage, “Act fast, the only option that is left near you.” I feverishly typed in all the information and breathed a long sigh of relief when the “approved” message came on. The only glitch was that to get the key to the apartment we had to walk to the office of 2ndHomes, about a mile away in the opposite direction, pick up the key, and then walk a mile back, lugging our suitcases all the way. Hey, no problem given the alternative of sleeping on the street or having to pay a fortune for a hotel room during high tourist season. Cost for the studio—60 euros. The two 30-something attendants at 2ndHomes were cheerful, understanding, supportive and spoke English without a hint of an accent. 

We made the trek back to find our unit without incident. It is a somewhat modest studio apartment located on the ground level of a five story building, but comfortable and spacious enough with a small kitchen and tiny bathroom, sort of like being on a sailboat. And it even has windows!

So here we are in Helsinki. Embry is still haggling with the owner, who finally did call her back around nine, about how much we have to pay and with Airbnb, but we have a roof over our heads. 

And to be honest I do have to admit that being “liberated” from a tour group does have its down side.

Baltic Blog 6: Estonia

We are  now traveling with the choir on a large tour bus complete with a gentle but firm guide, Lena, who is Latvian. No nonsense tolerated by this lady. After getting on the bus, the drill is for each person to announce his or her “number” in numerical order—some 42 call-outs in all. My number,“26,” will  be etched in my memory for years. Even though most people are from Westminster Presbyterian Church and many were already close friends, the group seemed to start to come together after the first concert and the Sunday service. The mood on the bus was upbeat, positive and enthusiastic; and perhaps most important, there have been no complainers– no surprise  since most are Presbyterians.

I have got to admit that there are certain advantages to group travel. Almost all decisions are taken care of, and all you really have to do is to get on and off the bus, follow the guide, obey the rules, remember your number during the call-out exercise, and stagger up to your hotel room at the end of a tiring day. You stay in nice hotels, see interesting sights, eat pretty good food, drink excellent local, draft lager, and try to stay awake when your guide tells you about what you are seeing. You do not have to worry about being imprisoned in a dungeon or having your car towed or not being able to get into an obscure AirBnb in a dangerous neighborhood.

On the other hand, a lot is lost—the thrill of actually finding your destination on your own, moving at your own pace, overcoming hardship and confusion, and discovering a new place without the aid of someone whom you can’t hear or understand very well in the first place. 

And there are risks with group travel. You could end up sitting  next to a born-again, Evangelical Christian, who has identified you as low hanging fruit for another notch on his conversion score card. I don’t know what it is about me that suggests I might be putty in their hands, but it does seem to happen to me more than to others. I guess they can look at me and see that I need help. In any event that was my fate on this tour, and I have to say that the missionary, who was about my age, had a lot going for him. The  issue was you got to hear his (rather inspiring) life story at each meal and then had to bite your tongue when he praised Jerry Falwell, described Liberty University as “the best college in America,” and complained about all the atheists teaching in “so called, good colleges.” I did pretty well, just listening and keeping my mouth shut. He mercifully did not say one word about Trump, which would have been the proverbial straw for me. As the tour progressed into the third day, he pulled me off to the side and looked me straight in the eye as he became deadly serious.

 “You know,” he said earnestly. “There are two options and only two options. You are  getting older and do not have a lot of time left. You can accept Jesus Christ as your savior and be born again and spend eternity with Jesus or you can burn in hell. That’s it. And if you are born again, you must accept every single word in the bible as the word of God, every word. It is your choice.”

This guy was a born again Presbyterian? My goodness! I did not know there was such a thing.

All  I could think about was that if the salvation option also included spending eternity with the likes of Jerry Falwell, it was a tough decision. I managed to quickly change the subject to  the weather, and that ended all the talk about religion.

Our first stop in Estonia was in Parnu, a small, resort town of several thousand people located on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The town had its  old town  with the usual charm and medieval character along with a lot of spas and resort hotels. Our hotel was located along the shore and was about a 20-minute walk to the town center where the choir performed its second concert in another old Lutheran church. Like the first concert, the audience filled the large nave and seemed to me to be very engaged in listening to the music, which was mostly modern, American, choral music including  several spirituals. The choir director, Ben Hutchens, is  a rare mix (for a choir director, according to Embry, who has lots of experience with choir directors ) of friendliness, charm, patience, and extraordinary musical talent. He is also an early 40-something, fellow Tar Heel graduate.

The most amazing thing about the Parnu experience was that when we visited the beach area on our morning tour, it was comfortably accommodating several hundred sunbathers in weather that had barely topped 60  degrees for the past two days. Even more amazing, a number of families with kids were splashing around in the water. The sun was out, however, and that seemed to be enough to entice them. These Baltic folks are tough! Only six hours of sunlight in the depths of winter, snow all winter-long,  no spring arrival until June. But the summers are nice and comfortable with 18 hours of light, and we have experienced (along with some cool, rainy days) several near perfect days with mid 70s temperatures, low humidity, gentle breezes and sunny skies. That’s the trade off. I do not think many Estonians would trade what they have for our 90 degree, high humidity days during Washington summers.

The next day we piled on the bus again, shouted out our numbers in turn, and drove through beautiful countryside for five hours to Tallinn, the  capital of Estonia and its largest city with a population of around 400,000—tiny and compact with a very large and robust old town. Because of its large port, which can accommodates five or six, huge cruise ships a day, the tourist population is very large and diverse and includes Asians and other people of color not usually seen in the other Baltic countries.

Estonia is the smallest of the three countries with a population of around 1.3 million and has a totally different language, which is very close to the Finnish language. Like Latvia, it did not become a nation state until 1918. Some guidebooks describe Estonia as the most progressive Baltic country, with a woman prime minister, universal, affordable health care, a strong social safety net, and “E-voting,” whatever that is. It escaped the worst of the Nazi atrocities during the war only because the Jewish population was quite small, under 10,000, and most fled the country once it became apparent what was going on in Lithuania. That did not keep the Germans from establishing concentration camps in Estonia toward the end of the war where Jews from other countries were sent to die. 

The post war occupation by the Soviets was similar to the that of the two other Baltic countries with thousands of civic leaders, liberal politicians, intellectuals, teachers and clergy exiled to Siberia, religion outlawed, churches closed or converted to museums or warehouses, and requirements that everyone learn to speak Russian. 

The last two days of the tour were spent in Tallinn with the final concert in a huge Lutheran Church on one of the main, old town plazas. I have been very impressed with how hard the singers have worked with almost every afternoon devoted to rehearsals, some  followed by an evening concert. The choristers seemed to feel very good about the final concert, relieved that the hard work was over and that the concerts had been such a success. Of the 42 call-outs on the bus, all but a handful were  singers. Five or six of us were spouses (mainly men) along for the ride. 

The final day was  a much needed, free day for people to see more of the city or just get some rest. For a farewell diner, the tour organizers had booked an entire restaurant in the old town section. The food was the best of the tour. There were several short speeches (including remarks by Embry), toasts, and hugs all around when we returned to our hotel just before ten. The next morning at breakfast most of the others had already departed for home. Not us, we were ready for our final leg: on our own in Finland. Reflections on the Baltic experience will follow.

Baltic Blog 5: Latvia

So off to Latvia! Within a couple of hours we had breezed past the former passport control area, now peacefully unattended. Why on Earth would anyone—like the UK– want to leave the EU?

My initial reaction to Latvia was that it was just like Lithuania in many ways but   different in others. In terms of similarities, outside the cities the flat, deep green pastures dotted with small villages and farm houses are indistinguishable from those in Lithuania. Looking out a car window, you could be in either country. The languages are also somewhat similar–and the only ones like them in the world– and the words are equally obscure and unpronounceable for Americans. A typical person’s name will have a dozen consonants and maybe two vowels. The origin of  both  countries dates back thousands of years before the Common Area, but their “modern” histories did not begin until the Thirteenth Century. Both have an ample supply of Medieval “old towns.”  The size of the countries are pretty similar with small populations, only one big city, and very low densities, and the food is not all that different—lots of meat and potatoes and very good, local draft lager. Both countries were invaded by Germany at the beginning of World War II, watched their Jewish populations annihilated by the Nazis and suffered under the Soviet rule from 1944-1990. Both countries have been held together by a common bond of language, custom, music, and culture and while being subdued by powerful invaders, have hung together as a people. 

There are also differences, which are subtle but real. Perhaps most important, Latvia never was a formal nation-state before 1918. This was not the case with Lithuania, which was a kingdom as early as the Thirteenth Century and actually dominated Latvia during the period of the Grand Duchy and during its alliance with Poland. During the entire period before the early 20th century, Latvia  was ruled by foreign powers. In the very early period, the Twelfth through the Fifteenth Centuries, Latvia was home to German barons and Russian royalty and used for hunting preserves and summer estates. It was during the Swedish rule in the Seventeenth Century  that the Lutheran Church was introduced, and still today a majority of Latvians are Lutherans while there are almost no Lutherans in Lithuania, which is heavily Catholic.  Then came the domination by the Russians under Peter The Great, which expanded Russian Orthodoxy and lasted all the way until the end of World War I when Latvia finally became a country governed by the Latvian people.  All three Baltic territories  first became Christianized in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries during the Crusades—in other words by the sword not the dove. Lithuania was the last  country in Europe to fight to the bitter end against the Crusaders, not surrendering  into well  into the 1500s. Guidebooks maintain that paganism actually never completely gave up the ghost and still exists today  in Lithuania though only in small, isolated, rural areas.  I find this strangely reassuring since though a devoted Episcopalian, I have for some time also been a closet animist myself and believe God looks kindly on “primitive” people searching in their own way for the Divine.

The other distinction is that the main religion of Lithuania, the Catholic Church, is thriving compared to the experience of most churches of all types throughout most of Europe.  Our guides were quick to point out that unlike in Lithuania the average person in Latvia (and Estonia) is a “Chris’ter” –attending church only on Christmas and Easter, which one guide pointed out have their own dose of “paganism” (winter solstice and the rite of spring).  While most Latvians still do get baptized, the majority are baptized as Lutherans, not Catholics. 

The other big difference is that Latvia is much more diverse demographically with over 25% Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church has more than twice as many members as the Catholic Church in Latvia. The Russian influence goes back many centuries but is most despised for its post war occupation when most churches were shuttered and the clergy exiled to Siberia, most to die there.

Remnants of a robust religious past are everywhere. In all the cities we visited in both countries  the urban landscapes are dotted  with towering church spires—a mix of Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic –and for the most part, these structures  are beautiful, ancient, and  quite large, usually seating upwards of 500 congregants. 

Our first morning in Riga, the capital of Latvia, included a morning two-mile walking tour of the Old Town area, guided by a very enthusiastic, young woman in her thirties. The old towns are the centers of tourism in all the cities we visited, and the Riga Old Town  did not disappoint. At ten  in the morning on Friday, July 5, it was buzzing with outdoor cafes, small shops and tour groups. Unlike Vilnius, Riga also has a lot of city parks, with streams and fountains,  manicured lawns and tree-lined esplanades. Despite being smaller (650,000 versus almost a million), the city seems more prosperous than Vilnius, probably due to its large port and historic niche as the center of trade and culture in the Baltic states. 

That afternoon the choir began rehearsing in earnest for its first concert, which was held the following day to a packed house in a large, Lutheran church near the center of Old Town. Despite the lack of sufficient practice (according to Embry), they sounded great to me and were warmly received by an enthusiastic audience generally getting up there in years–like the choir.

We ended up spending two days in Riga with the choir singing the next day at the Sunday service at the same Lutheran church, which to my surprise was about a quarter full, more than I would have expected given the grim assessment of formal religion by our guides. Two clergy officiated and it seemed to me that we got two sermons from the towering pulpit—one from each minister. Both were read in monotones; and as I daydreamed, it occurred to me that it was probably a blessing  that the entire service was in Latvian rather than English. Of course, that could apply to a lot of church services. The most unusual part of the service was the communion part when the entire congregation marched forward and knelt on the cold marble floor as they  crammed into the chancel area. I stayed put in the pew and was glad I did since there was no way I could have handled that feat without help.

High marks for Latvia though the weather was generally mixed with one fabulous, though cool, sunny day and one with clouds and showers. Now off to Estonia!

Baltic Blog 4: On To Latvia

We spent the better part of two more days in Lithuania. We mercifully decided to cut short the stay in the dungeon by one day, which would allow us to drive about 250 miles across the country to Klaipeda, the country’s third largest city and its only port. The first challenge was to get out of Vilnius, which was preceded by the nearly impossible challenge of finding a vacant parking spot in Old Town. Even if you were lucky enough to find a space, it would cost you 1.5 Euros an hour, which over the course of a day could add up. It is one of those deals where you find a parking card dispensary and pay up front, then put the receipt inside your windshield. We noticed that no car we looked at had one of the receipts on its dashboard, but still, you never know. Anyway no spaces were available. So the next option was to park in a tow away zone. There happened to be such a zone right across from our dungeon with one free space available. Hey, all those cars illegally parked were still there, so what were the chances of our actually getting towed, though admittedly I did not know if they might have had some kind of special permit? So we went for it, squeezing in so tight between two other cars that it would have been impossible for any wrecker to pry us out. Besides how could any wrecker navigate the tiny streets and remove any vehicle? It worked. The car stayed put for two days, no towing and no parking ticket. Score one for the codgers.

The five-hour drive to Klaipeda was a mix of blinding rain and occasional sunny skies as one thunderstorm after another raced in from the west. It also marked the beginning of a dramatic change in weather with highs dropping from the mid to high 70s to the mid to low 60s and lows in the 40s with plenty of rain in the forecast. Welcome to the Baltics!

The entire drive was on a Lithuanian equivalent of a U.S. interstate, somewhat crowed at times, but overall the drivers in Lithuania are courteous, obey the rules, and almost always stop for pedestrians on crosswalks, including one such crosswalk which to my disbelief crossed the superhighway. 

The town we were headed to was not only a port city but also the gateway to the “ Curonian Spit,” a  thin slice of land only a few hundred yards wide with the Baltic Sea on one side and a large bay on the other extending about 100 miles from Lithuania to the tiny part of Russia that is on the Baltic. It is supposed to be the go-to beach  in Lithuania. The Spit is a national park, which is accessible only by ferry and considered a top must-see in the Baltics. In that sense it is a bit like our  Outer Banks in North Carolina but without all the commercialization. Because of high winds and cool temperatures and the short time we had to stay there– we did not make the ferry journey to the Spit, probably a mistake. But by late afternoon the wind was howling at thirty knots, the sky threatening thunderstorms, and temperatures in the low 60s and falling. Not what you would call a beach day. So we passed on it. The town of Klaipeda, while old and attractive, did not show any hint of being the gateway to an internationally renowned beach but rather a sleepy, port town and commercial center with its old town medieval area and not much sign of tourism including a paucity of restaurants. Our hotel (small, plain and simple but quite pleasant and with windows) was about a mile and a half out of the downtown area, from which we walked to the downtown area and back, with some sightseeing around the port and a stop for a light dinner at a local pub. Overall worth the side trip.

The drive the next day, July 4, to Riga, the capital of Latvia, took another six hours, driving through showers and fleeting sunshine on mostly two-lane roads through numerous small villages and gorgeous, flat farmland. Except for getting pulled over and ticketed for going 78 kph (48 mph) in a local 50 kph (35 mph, fine 80 euros) zone, it was uneventful. Dropping off the car at the Riga airport was a minor challenge since at the rental car return area where every American car company was represented along with numerous international ones, no one had ever heard of “Trusty Rental Car.” Several frantic phone calls later, when we learned that the drop-off  spot was at a parking lot outside the airport, we headed there, dropped off the keys and were on our way. We arrived via cab in downtown Riga minutes before the choir was headed out to a local restaurant for a celebratory, welcoming dinner. Our hotel was a Radisson high rise and quite fancy with a spa, health club, and upscale bar and restaurant. Sure beats our dungeon.

So began the choir portion of the tour. There are 42 Americans on the tour, almost all but us members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Arlington, a thriving church with a thousand members. Embry wanted to join the choir tour because our former choir director at All Souls Church, Ben Hutchens, is now there and put the choir tour together. She could not turn down an invitation from him to sign up. They will sing four times—three concerts and one Sunday morning service. They all seem to know each other, are generally about our age, and on the whole are enthusiastic and decent people. After all they are Presbyterians. The only wrinkle is that we are outsiders and do not feel all that much a part of what appears to me to be a pretty close-knit group; but we do know a handful of people who used to attend All Souls when Ben was there. Not knowing a bunch or people is no problem for me since I have tagged along to catch a glimpse of a part of the world I know nothing about. 

About that world, I will learn much more. Lithuania was an eye opener for me—especially with regard to the Jewish Holocaust and our potential inhumanity to our brothers and sisters on this small planet–and also what it is like to live in such an old, beautiful but troubled part of the world.  More about that part of the world will follow as we travel (and sing) through Latvia and Estonia. Stay tuned.

Baltic Blog 3: The Dark Side

We spent our third day in Vilnius sightseeing and spending more time in  Old Town, meandering through the narrow streets, and stopping for ice cream and people watching. There is something special about this place that is hard to put into words. I think it boils down to a kind of authenticity that you rarely find in tourist locations. The mood is low key and relaxed in contrast to high energy places that are on so many bucket lists. Vilnius may be Europe’s best-kept secret. However, I am hesitant to broadcast this because  if it were to become the go-to spot for tourists, all this would change.  But for now consider it a rare gem; just don’t tell too many others so that it will retain its magical character. 

But all is not perfect in paradise. Or rather all has not been perfect. The country has a horrific past that seems almost inconceivable to us today. It was ground zero for the Holocaust of World War II. We spent most of the afternoon of the third day visiting two Holocaust museums where we learned about what happened in 1941 and again in 1945. 

But first some facts about Lithuania. The country is only about half the size of Colorado and has a total population of about 2. 8 million in 2019, almost double what it had in 1941. In terms of population density it comes in 171 out of 200 countries, making it one of the least populated countries in the world. Over 70% of the country live in three cities—the capital, Vilnius, with almost a million people, and two others with around 200, 000 each. Everyone else lives in one of the several hundred tiny villages or in one of the countless farmhouses that dot the landscape. In other words it is tiny; and because of its small size and its location, it is vulnerable and powerless against the whims of the big boys and girls next door, especially Russia and Germany. 

Over the millennia that Lithuania has been a country, the people living here have been ruled at one time or another by Russians, Germans and to a certain extent Poles, in some cases multiple times. Yet despite all this they have hung in there and been able to preserve their identity and national character. Early in its history it was one of the giants itself when in the Thirteenth Century its second or third king expanded the borders (“The Grand Duchy of Lithuania”) to include most of European Russia, Belarus, and Poland, actions which made it the largest country in Europe, but that was long ago. The country also enjoyed a relationship with Poland that allowed the combined alliance to dominate central Europe for several centuries, but that too was long ago. Beginning in the Twentieth Century Lithuaina was open game.

Following the end of World War I, modern Lithuania declared its independence in 1918 and remained independent until the beginning of World War II when the Soviet Union occupied the country after it signed a non aggression pact with Hitler. Russian dominance was short lived. The Nazis broke the treaty and invaded Lithuania, other Baltic states, and Norway beginning in 1941. Following the end of World War II, Lithuania became a part of the Soviet Union, where it remained unhappily until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.  In 1992, it reclaimed its independence.

What made Lithuania different from the other European countries were the large number of Jews living there–more than 200,000– accounting for roughly a quarter of the entire population, the highest percentage of Jews in any country in the world. This made it an ideal target for a madman whose mission was to eliminate all Jews from the face of the Earth. In Lithuania this is what happened.

The reason that so many Jews were living in Lithuania is that for centuries it had a reputation for accepting the Jewish population. If not welcoming Jews, at least the country “tolerated” them better than most other countries. Jews were restricted to living in ghettos, and most spoke only Hebrew or Yiddish, maintained  their own culture with their own schools, synagogues, and institutions, and were rarely assimilated into the larger community. However, there were no pogroms and relatively little open, anti-Semitism. This attracted Jews from all over Europe, many of whom became wealthy businessmen, professionals, teachers, university professors, artists and intellectuals—creating a large, upper class Jewish population.

In 1941 this all changed almost in a blink of an eye.

Life for Jews in Lithuania had not been so great under the brief Soviet rule. The Soviets shut down all Jewish schools, closed synagogues and Jewish newspapers, and made life miserable for the average Jew living there. When the Nazis moved in, many Jews were relieved, thinking life could not get any worse. That was in June 1941. In early December 1941, official reports we read in the Holocaust Museum stated that the mission in Lithuania had been completed successfully: all Jews except those necessary for the Nazi war effort had been “ liquated.” The official number at that time was over 137,000 Jews killed. This amounted to killing Jews at a rate of almost 1,000 persons a day during the five month period starting in June 1941. In a highly organized and efficient effort , Jews were systematically identified, rounded up, taken to the closest wooded areas, and shot—men, women and children. The Nazi report complained of the hard work involved in digging so many mass graves  in such a short time but boasted of their “accomplishment.” Many non Jewish Lithuanians were enlisted to assist in this effort as were some Jews, who were not given a choice.  In the end almost all the Jews who survived the 1941 Holocaust, perished in the concentration camps in 1945. No one knows for sure what the final tab was, but most historians estimate that less than 10% of the entire Jewish Lithuanian population survived, most by escaping.

Sure, you may think, everyone knows about the Holocaust. There is nothing new here. But let me tell you: When you are standing in the place where it all happened, it is very different. It becomes real in a way that reading the facts in a history book do not. You can only  remain speechless, contemplating  the horror  that we humans are capable of inflicting  on one another . Will anything like this ever happen again? It has come close in Rwanda, Cambodia and more recently in Myanmar.

And just yesterday I read (again) about the migrant children in detention centers in Texas where young Central American children including some infants and toddlers were forcefully taken from their parents and made to sleep on cement floors with no blankets and were not given enough food. Our president has called their parents rapists and murderers, “low lifes,” and animals. This is the same president who has repeatedly threatened to arrest and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and to take action against a “fake press.”

But this talk is all bluster, isn’t it? Nothing like the Holocaust could happen in the U.S., could it? We should not worry too much about Trump or what he says, should we?

Are those are the same kinds of questions, I wonder, that were whispered in Jewish communities in Vilnius and throughout Lithuania in May 1941, days before the invasion by the Nazis?

Baltic Blog 2: Lithuanian Surprises

So how much do you know about Lithuania? Probably not much if you are like me—just another one of those small, obscure, European countries that were part of the Soviet Union and a forgotten land trying  to struggle along on its own. Over the course of the next three days, I was reminded once again how  wrong we Americans are to discount  many countries as  inferior without much to offer,  only because we don’t know much about them or care to know.  Embry and I have visited over 50 counties over the course of our marriage and with few exceptions have come away with appreciation of what each country has to offer—along, of course, with awareness of the dark sides of their experience. I am continually reminded of how small and fragile our lonely, blue planet is and how much there is to celebrate and protect but also how easy it is for life to turn from good to bad. In that category Lithuania is Exhibit A, but more on that later.

On day two, after strolling the winding, narrow cobblestoned streets of Old Town  bustling with activity–coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and fancy shops– we decided we would make use of our rental car and head out into the countryside. Various guidebooks identified a large national park (Aukstaitija) near the southeastern border with Belarus  as a must-see place if you are in Vilnius though it is almost 120 miles away. Using our Google Maps app, we made our way out of the city and very soon found ourselves on a mostly deserted, two-lane road winding through towering pine forests and occasional small farms with modest farm houses amidst fields of wheat and grain. Lithuania is a poor country compared to most other European countries and certainly to the U.S., but nowhere have we seen anything close to abject poverty or seen any panhandlers.

We had put the name of the park in the Google app on my iPhone and followed instructions. After a couple of hours on the road, Google told us to take a sharp right onto a narrow, paved road. That road took us through several scenic villages with modest but well kept homes surrounded by fields of green. Nowhere was there any sign that suggested we were in a national park. Nor did we pass a single vehicle over the course of the several miles we were on the road. Then as we passed though one of the more quaint villages, with a dozen or so houses, the paved road abruptly ended and turned into a one lane, dirt road with no signs of any kind—certainly no indications that we were in a park. We forged ahead hoping we would not encounter another vehicle headed in the opposite direction, which would require one of the vehicles to back up for what would seem like miles. The farther and deeper we inched our way into the primeval forest, the more it resembled a path, leaving open the questions where were we headed and how were we ever going to get out of there.  

After about a half hour, Google Maps lit up with the announcement, “You have arrived at your destination!” We looked around. Towering pines lined the dirt  road with lakes barely visible behind them on both sides. There was no other sign of human life anywhere or for that matter that humans had ever been here. The closest experience I could think was our adventure in Siberia in 1992 when we visited our son, Andrew, who was living in Moscow, and who had arranged our own private tour with friends to explore the Taiga Forest. Both spots were totally unspoiled and beautiful and absent any hint of human activity except for the deserted, one lane road we were on.

“So we are here!” Embry exclaimed, “Hooray for Google Maps.”

The device had indeed led us to the exact center of a desolate but extraordinarily beautiful, national park covering over 150 square miles.  All I could do was marvel at what kind of algorithm could figure all this out and know where this “road” was and whether it could also lead us out of this wilderness. 

 Soon after the announcement that we had arrived at our destination, we parked our car at a opening next to a lake where there was one picnic table and then followed a tiny path along the lake that eventually took us back to the dirt road we had been on. We decided to follow that road, walking in the opposite direction from our car, and after a half mile or so met two actual human beings, 30-something hikers, a man and a woman—with two small dogs—hiking towards us. As we greeted each other, I wondered what the chances were that they could speak English. The answer: close to 100%. Almost everyone in Lithuania seems to speak at least some English since that has become the de facto universal language on the planet and since there are fewer than three million people in Lithuania who speak that  language. If you want to get by, English is now your best bet for a backup language. Of course, this was not the case even a few decades ago, and we Americans tend to forget how lucky we are to be able to get by speaking our own language.

When we answered the guy’s question as to where we were from, he threw his head back and laughed in disbelief, exclaiming in perfect English, “How on Earth did you end up here?”

We responded that we had no idea.

He told us that if we kept walking in six or seven kilometers we would come to another village and that as long as we stayed on the dirt road we would be ok and eventually come out of the park. After walking for another 30 minutes, we decided to turn around and head back to the car. When we got back, we turned on the Google app and following its instructions slowly made our way out of the park. Google took us through the wilderness, alongside lakes, sparkling in the afternoon sun, and through several small settlements, some with pretty fancy homes that we concluded must be vacation homes. In a couple of hours we were back on a paved road, headed back to Vilnius and thinking about how beautiful and wild this extraordinary country is.

We spent the next day walking the streets of Vilnius and visiting several museums, two dealing with the Holocaust in Lithuania, which will be the subject of the next blog—a horrific happening and a reminder that life on the planet Earth is a two-sided coin. More on this to follow.

Baltic Log 1: Half The Fun Is Getting There

Last fall Embry signed up for a choir tour in several Baltic countries organized by her former choir director at All Souls Church. I volunteered to go along as a groupie. We are supposed to meet up with the choir in about a week in Riga, Latvia, but we are starting with time on our own, which we are using to visit Lithuania. I am writing this first installment sitting in a graffiti enriched, deteriorating , ancient courtyard in the Old Town section of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. We have been sitting here all day waiting for our bags, which we have been without for two days, and there is no assurance when we will get them. 

The reason we are sitting outside in the courtyard rather than in our basement, Airbnb apartment, the “best value” Embry could find in Vilnius at $45/night, is that when and if the Finn Air driver ever shows, he won’t have a chance in actually finding the door to get into the vestibule leading to the treacherous stairs down to our subterranean unit. It took Embry three phone calls to the owner and more than an hour for us to figure it out ourselves.

The reason that we do not have the bags is that our Finn Air flight from JFK to Helsinki (business class, thank heavens, so I can’t complain) was delayed by six hours, though to be accurate it was not actually delayed, we just had failed to note the change in departure time. In any event this put us into Helsinki with less than an hour to make our 11:00 AM departure to Vilnius, so we were placed on standby for an overbooked flight leaving at 4:30 PM. The nice lady at Finn Air, taking pity on a straggling septuagenarian couple, bribed a couple of passengers to take another flight and squeezed us in. But the bags never made it. 

The last two days we have spent over 12 hours in airports and 12 hours in airplanes—longer overall than it took us to get to New Zealand! So here we are, exhausted, jet lagged and wondering when or if we will get our toothbrushes, razor, and other essential stuff. Fortunately I had the good sense to put my meds in my backpack. 

But  life could be a lot worse. The weather is drop dead gorgeous with temperatures in the mid 70s, Carolina blue sky, and a gentle breeze. When we were informed that the bags would probably not be delivered until the afternoon, we got a chance to stroll along the narrow cobblestone streets in Old Town, buzzing with activity, catch a bite to eat at an outdoor café, and stick our head in the largest (Catholic) cathedral, which, being Sunday, was jammed packed with worshippers. I guess no one has told them that God is supposed to be dead in Europe. And our first impression of the city is that while old and decaying in some neighborhoods, it is charming and provides a glimpse of one of the rare medieval, European towns that survived World War II bombings.

The most unique aspect of our journey so far at this early stage is our Airbnb  “apartment.” When we finally got all the  lock combinations right and found the right door in the courtyard, we made our way down a rickety, narrow stairway which led to a spacious room with 20-foot ceilings and four-foot stone walls. The information that Embry consulted on the internet described the room as being the basement of a castle, a bit of an overstatement since there was no castle anywhere near. I thought to myself that “dungeon” would have been more accurate. However, the owner had gone to some lengths to brighten up the place—terra cotta floor tiles, good lighting, a six foot, modern  stone statue of a nude woman and a large baroque painting of a bare-breasted woman holding a scull  and several other unframed, impressionist landscapes, which I presume had to  be painted by the owner since I could not conceive of anyone actually paying money for them. The room felt musty and damp and at first glance did not appear to have any windows. Upon closer inspection I spotted at the corner just below the ceiling one tiny window, which measured about two feet wide and two feet tall, but was covered so that only a tiny ray of light entered the room. Small relief for a claustrophobic like me, but, hey, you take what you can get.  

At 8:30 PM just about when we were about to give up and turn our jetlagged selves in for the evening, Embry got a call on her cellphone that the driver was five minutes away. We waited outside as a very large van edged its way up the narrow street and stopped to unload. I noticed that there were at least a dozen other bags waiting to be delivered and could not help asking the young driver how many bags he had already delivered.

“Oh not all that many today,” he replied, smiling, “About 150 bags and 100 stops, almost finished for the day.” 

If you ever travel Finn Air, do not forget to take your essentials in a carry-on.

We inched our way down the steep stairs with the bags, holding onto the railing for our life, relieved, and wondering what surprises Lithuania would have for us.