I am typing this in the early morning hours of June 8th. Before us are 13 more nights on the road and then home. In the meantime we continue to enjoy local cuisine, in this case real Vienna Schnitzel.

The June 7th night train from Vienna to Hannover with connection to Berlin did not depart until nearly 9 pm. We took that as an opportunity to spend the day wandering the cultural center of Vienna Austria, and what sights there were! Our 7 mile sojourn left us certain that we would return some day to see the treasures contained within the monumental structures that we passed. The 12th Century St. Stephen’s Cathedral was the only building that we entered, and there we ascended one of the towers for an overview of the central city an to see the “Plummerin” (bell) which weighs nearly 50,000 pounds and is the third largest swinging bell in Europe. I apologize for not including information about the buildings in the following pictures. We felt like ants wandering in a land of giants. Perhaps details will come with a future visit.

We were in Ireland when I made arrangements for the night trains. This was the one part of our journey that I wish I could have planned earlier. I secured the last available first class cabin for out inbound transit to Vienna but only a second class sleeper was available for the outbound. The difference is significant. Unlike the privacy and amenities we enjoyed in our 2 person first class cabin, the second class “couchette” is a cabin for 6 passengers with the beds arranged 3 high across from each other. I and one of the other passengers ascended to our top bunks by a narrow metal ladder and had to be careful not to sit up quickly lest we bang our heads on the ceiling. The cabin was warm but tolerable down below, however near the ceiling it was 10 degrees hotter. In deference to the privacy of the other 5 passengers I took only a few pictures looking out on the countryside from our carriage.

André Lieber was our first foreign exchange student. He was a part of our family for the 1992-93 school year. He still calls us Dad and Mom. André met his wife Asuka as students studying Chinese in Beijing 18 years ago. She was a Japanese national. Among the languages they spoke they held only English and Chinese in common. They have since also learned each other’s native tongues. They and their two darling children live in Berlin where André is employed by the Ministry of Finance and Asuka by a private corporation. The children are bilingual in German and Japanese, also now learning English. Theirs is truly a world family!

André met us at the train and we immediately began a tour of Berlin. He was able to arrange a rare private tour for us of the Reichstag, Germany’s center of government. The Bundestag was in session so our tour did not include the actual parliamentary chamber.

The Reichstag was severally damaged during World War 2. This rebuilt structure is ultramodern but retains much of its historical facade. Atop of the Reichstag is a huge glass dome containing double-helix ramp-ways to ascent and descend the top of the dome.

We saw much in our overview walking tour with André. I will end this note with our moving visit to the 2003 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It consists of a grid work of 2,711 slabs covering nearly 5 acres. Beneath the field of “stelae” is a museum that somberly details the stories of the 7 million victims of Nazi genocide between 1933 and 1945. In one room brief recorded biographies of the dead are read aloud in German and English 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These biographies are being compiled in Israel and it is estimated that the current collection will take over 7 years to read aloud.

Our day concluded with registration at our comfortable hotel, and a 2 minute walk to André and Asuka’s apartment where we enjoyed dinner with the family.

Peace Everyone. Pete

This was our last full day in Slovakia. We toured the ruins of The medieval Devin Castle and then wandered the streets of Bratislava’s old city.

The story of Devin Castle significantly predated the ruins of this thousand year old bastion. Excavations have revealed Roman fortifications dating to the second century and the foundation of a Christian church from the third century.

Devin Castle sits at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers. The steep slopes and mountainous terrain made this an ideal point for the protection of these important trade routes. Unfortunately, it was also a point of significant conflict. The castle stands in ruins today because it was captured and then destroyed by Napoleon in 1809.

Today, the Danube remains important for the transport of commerce and tourists through Central and Eastern Europe. Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital and largest city, is located along the banks of the Danube and is a mixture of the ultra-modern and the old world.

We will depart the morning of June 7th for Vienna Austria and spend the day wandering the central city as we await our night train departure for Hannover and then onward to Berlin.

Our time with Svetlana, Milan, and their children has been special beyond words. “Svetla”, as we called her, became as one of our own children in 1996. Nothing in the intervening 22 years has lessened our love for her. It is gratifying to see that life has smiled upon her and her family.

Waiting for us in Berlin is our first exchange student son, Andre Lieber and his family. The sadness of our departure from Svetla is tempered by our excitement for that reunion.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. We developed a strong friendship with Canadians Tom Shillington and his wife Nanci Burns while walking the Camino on this journey. We laughingly referee to ourselves as the “doppelgänger couples”. There is some truth in that lighthearted reference. They have just returned to their home in Ottawa from their lengthy journey in Europe. Tom sent me a message and a bit of a caution. Returning home after such a journey is like rising to the surface too fast from a deep exploration of the sea. One risks suffering from “the bends” if one does not take the time to “decompress”. The metaphor is Tom’s, and I imagine very well applied. Perhaps I will borrow upon it in penning some final reflections nearer the end. There are 15 nights to go.

Again, Peace!

74 days on the road yet we still have the energy to tour like new travelers! Perhaps it is a tribute to the infectious energy of our hosts, Milan and Svetlana. This is the second day spent in their beautiful home. Milan has explained that 100% of the credit for the tastefully selected art, the interior decor, and the amazing landscaping goes to Svetlana.

I will add that she manages not only these things, but a busy professional career, and home cooking daily dinner for the family. She “demands” that the family relax at table every evening to share the experiences of the day. The discipline shows in the pleasant maturity of their two children.

We were off after breakfast for the countryside. First stop was one of Slovakia’s 12 caverns, the Driny Cavern. A steep walk up a forest path brought us to the cave entrance.

Driny is a limestone cave located in western Slovakia in the Lesser Carpathian Mountains. It was discovered in 1929 by S. Basic, a Slovak and inventor of the parachute! The cave is home to two species of bats and extends for approximately three-quarters of a mile, 80% of which is open to the public.

Our tour was enhanced by the presence of a group of excited elementary school children who were indistinguishable from their North American counterparts, except for the language.

After the tour of the cavern we enjoyed beverages and were then off to nearby Red Stone Castle.

This fortress was originally built in 1230 as a border fortification between the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary by Queen Constance of Bohemia. It was expanded and modified between the 13th and 16th Centuries. It became the property of the Fugger family who then sold it in 1583 to the Palffy family, rich Hungarian nobles, who retained ownership into the 20th Century. At one time the Palffys owned virtually all of what is now modern Slovakia. The castle became the property of the State in 1945.

The Palffys constructed resident apartments atop the fortifications and gentrified the structures and grounds. Nevertheless the castle retained its utility as a point for defense.

It’s extensive underground vaults which are over 200 feet long and are among the largest in Europe. Within these remarkable structures the family stored copper, gold, and silver which were mined from the nearby mountains. Our tour benefited from the expertise of a young tour guide who was excited to exercise her excellent English language skills with our small group.

For me the highlight was the subterranean well. It extended downward over 300 feet to water that was then another 75 feet deep! It seemed to take an eternity for a dropped coin to reach the water below. The acoustics then resounded with the deep reverberations of the splash. Human bones were found in the well, and legend told of a castle servant who committed suicide rather than be captured by invading Russian troops.

After touring, the adults enjoyed an incredible gourmet dinner at a local restaurant. The meal featured an excellent local wine and (literally) white glove service from our waiter.

Back at the home of the family Rosina we joined the children on the patio for snacks, beverages, and a sharing of the day. The children had been diligently studying for their major exams that will be given over the next week. Christine, ever the grandmother, helped by quizzing the 11 year old daughter Lujza on her Spanish lessons.

Tomorrow we tour the capital of Bratislava.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. Over the last week the impermanence of life has reclaimed two of our dear friends.

While walking the Camino in 2013 it was our good fortune to meet a “pilgrim” from Colorado, Kris Ashton. She in turn brought her husband, Dennis Waite, into our life. We have enjoyed a very rich friendship with these two fit and adventurous souls. They have become more like a brother and sister to us.

Sadly, Dennis perished on May 30th while hiking the mountains of Scotland.

On June 4th a dear friend from my high school days passed after a lengthy illness. I was a newcomer to the community of Crete Illinois mid year as a freshman in high school. Dean Ortinau welcomed me as if I had shared friends and teachers with him my entire childhood. We reconnected in the last 10 years and created new memories of a shared friendship built upon our childhood “roots”.

In these two passages I am reminded that life is temporary, life is a lottery. Don’t put off until tomorrow the things that you may then find you are no longer able to do. Dennis and Dean never did.

Pete

We have arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia. This landlocked country of 5 million people is bordered by Poland, Ukraine, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Bratislava is its largest city and is about an hours drive from Vienna Austria, 2 hours from Budapest Hungary and 3 from Prague in the Czech Republic. It sits on the shores of the Danube River and is at the crossroads of Eastern Europe commerce and culture.

Slovakia had been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the 10th to the early 20th Century and then joined with its neighbor to form the country of Czechoslovakia in 1918. It was a beneficiary the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 that saw the fall of communism, and became the independent nation of the Slovak Republic as the result of a peaceful separation from the Czech Republic in 1993. Slovakia enjoys a very high standard of living and a very technicality advanced culture and economy.

We are guests for three days with Svetlana Rosinova, her husband Milan Rosina, and their 2 darling children. Svetlana is one of a number of people who still refer to us as “Mom and Dad” having been a part of our family as exchange students in the 1990’s. She spent the entire 1995-96 school year with us.

Milan is a communications and IT expert and Svetlana is a child psychologist. Their 11 year old daughter and 13 year old son are incredibly personable and polite, and speak fluent English, as do the parents. We last saw Svetlana 20 years ago in Prague and it is wonderful to see how she has succeeded in life. She and Milan are wonderful parents and partners. Their home is beautiful and charming by every standard imaginable. This has been a sweet and emotional reunion for us.

We look forward to seeing the countryside tomorrow and I am sure my camera will then get an appropriate workout!

Peace Everyone. Pete

Our last day in Brussels was spent with Bryony lazily wandering the old city squares and sampling small beers and treats at various cafes. The weather graced us with an exceptional opportunity to watch people and appreciate the architecture that dates to the early 1600’s.

The main Central Square is especially beautiful as the various multi-story buildings each once housed a craft guild… the union halls of the day. Each sought to display prominence. Among the Halls were those dedicated to bakers, brewers, weavers, shipwrights, and stone masons, just to name a few.

Belgium is known over the world for its incredible beers, delicious chocolates, lace, and tapestries. We had figured to do our part to alleviate any surplus of the first two categories, but it had not been our intention to entreat either of the latter categories… until we spied the tapestries!

We enjoy art. Indeed the walls of our home make that evident. Many years ago Christine and I were simultaneously captivated by a painting in a Wisconsin gallery. It was a stunning scene of evening mist on the waters of a north woods lake. In the foreground was a long abandoned rowboat that seemed to hold the memories of a now deceased angler and his child. The theme was even carried by the artist into the frame which he had made, and was a piece of art in its own right. The painting was an expensive original, but not beyond our means. To our regret we did not buy the piece. It has ever since been referred to between us as “The Painting”.

We were attracted to one of the tapestry shops and not being pressed to be anywhere or do anything in particular, we entered. There were many attractive pieces, but we had no intention of buying… until we saw not one, but two that conjured up the memory of “The Painting”. It took a mere glance between us to initiate the process of negotiating price and arranging shipping. We know precisely where each of these will hang in our great-room.

Afternoon arrived and the time came to express our gratitude and goodbyes to Bryony, but not before discussing a visit from her and her mother, Rosemary, to Kansas City. She was even included via a video chat. Perhaps next year? Time will tell.

I am writing this at 6am from the bed of our private cabin on the German “Night Jet” sleeper train to Vienna Austria. It is a first class accommodation that includes such niceties as complimentary wine, sweets, and breakfast served to us in the compartment. I am afraid that this wonderful means of travel is slowly disappearing in favor of the 300km per hour fast trains. We will enjoy it while we can.

At Vienna we will board an intercity service that will take us to Bratislava Slovakia where we will be met by our former exchange student “daughter”, Svetlana and her husband Milan. It has been 20 years since we last saw her. There will be much to talk about during the three days that we will be their guests.

Peace Everyone. Pete

I almost forgot to mention “The Manikin Pis”! For some reason that escapes me this diminutive statue of a little boy taking a pee has become an iconic symbol of Brussels. It was cast in the 1600’s and attracts throngs of tourists. Originally naked, the citizens of Brussels take great delight in dressing the little miscreant, yet he continues his endless stream of “urine”.

Kansas City has a similar statue, but it stands virtually unnoticed. Perhaps all that he needs is clothing.

We were up early and out the door of our hotel to meet Bryony at the Brussels Central Station for a one hour train ride and a daytrip to Antwerp. Walking the streets of a beautiful city shorn of its usual crowds has its benefits.

Both the Brussels and the Antwerp Central Train Stations are huge “beehives” of activity. Their architecture oozes old world charm. In the case of Antwerp, as it became necessary to expand the number of tracks serving the city they merely expanded downward. Each level contains many train platforms providing service to national and international destinations. There are over 20 separate train platforms!

In the 10 weeks that we have now been traveling we have ridden over 20 separate train trips, not counting commuter subway trips. Not a single one of those trips have been off their published timetable… every one has departed and arrived precisely on time!

Antwerp is a busy seaport city that is known for its prominence in the diamond trade. We passed on shopping those venues in favor of strolling the harbor area, and ascending the MAS art museum building for a free panorama of the city.

We did not have time to actually visit the collection, but just walking about inside was entertaining. There were lifelike statues of a ship captain and female officer standing at the edge of one of the floors, and a well utilized study area.

The city vista was also entertaining as one building displayed a series of larger than life human figures climbing the walls.

Our intended destination was the Red Star Museum. This is a sister site to New York’s Ellis Island. Over a span of approximately 40 years from the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century, Ellis Island received over 12 million immigrants for processing into the United States. Over 2 million of those souls had departed from Antwerp. The Red Star Museum is named after the prominent ship line that transported many of those emigrants from Antwerp and is housed in the buildings that processed those folks.

The museum presents the stories of those people, both the prominent such as Albert Einstein, and the nameless.

Screening to standards set by US Immigration at the departure point was necessary as any passenger rejected in New York had to be returned to Europe at the ship company’s expense. In spite of the rigorous examination, 2% were still turned back in New York. Imagine the heart rending choice that parents had to make when one of their young children was rejected and they could either proceed without her or choose to keep the family intact and return to Europe. Most families chose to continue on as social, economic, and political conditions in their former countries provided no real option for returning. Societies were formed to care for those “orphaned” children in the “old country”, helping them to remain in contact with their families if such was possible.

Our day also included a wonderful harborside lunch, and then a late evening dinner at a French restaurant back in Brussels.

We depart Belgium tomorrow evening and will be aboard a night sleeper train. Our destination will be Bratislava Slovakia for 3 days with Svetlana Rosinova, her husband Milan Rosina and their children. Svetlana lived with us for a year as a high school exchange student in the 1990’s. This will be an exciting reunion!

Peace Everyone. Pete

We arrived today by train in Brussels Belgium and were greeted by Bryony Ulyett who we have not seen for 26 years! She will be our companion for the next two days, sharing the sights and culture of a country at the western crossroads of Europe. She and Christine appear below in front of the birthplace of actress Audrey Hepburn.

Belgium is officially bilingual (Dutch and French), and Brussels City is not only the nation’s capital and location of Belgium’s Royal Palace, but also the de facto capital of the European Union. It is believed that there are more ambassadors and journalists in this city of 1.2 million than in Washington DC.

We began savoring the local cuisine and exceptional beer with her this evening. The real tour begins tomorrow.

Travel of a significant duration will inevitably include times of problem solving. As detailed in an earlier post, we were caught in a rainstorm while in the Netherlands. Christine’s iPad became “toast”. She has coverage to replace it, but only with the same model. The Apple Store in Amsterdam did not have one in stock and it could take up to two weeks for one to arrive if ordered. Of course, we have left Amsterdam and are now in Brussels Belgium.

As luck would have it, the Apple Store in Brussels was a 10 minute walk from our hotel. Christine left me at a street side restaurant with permission to caress a Belgian Blond or two (it’s a style of beer) and continued on to Apple to tell them her tale of woe.

I understand the importance of the iPad to Chris. It contains her books, puzzles, provides email and video contact for her with the “little people”, and most of all provides her with a reprieve from the uninterrupted version of me. I get it. The Brussels store had ONE in stock!

While Christine was engaged for nearly two hours at the store with the task of transferring data and functionality to the new device one might imagine that I would have become either bored, inebriated, or both. Instead, It turned into one of the most pleasant and insightful 2 hours of this journey.

I sat solo under an umbrellaed sidewalk table. It had rained earlier in the day so the pavement was wet and there was a lingering mist in the air. This was a busy upscale urban shopping district so there was a constant flow of traffic and people. A stream of life passed me from left to right and right to left… male, female, caucasian, black, oriental, young, old, fit, disabled… those characteristics stood out, but what was impossible to discern was nationality.

I was “invisible” to those who passed my table. I had become part of the wallpaper of that street scene. When I sought to make eye contact folks appeared to look right through me. The rare exceptions were a very old woman who met my gaze with a broad smile, and a few youngsters who looked at me with a mixture of wonder and curiosity. It was an extraordinary experience.

I found myself wondering. My literacy is limited to English and stands in stark contrast to the common command of at least two, or three languages by these pedestrians. Christine was availing herself of services in a “foreign country” with the same seamless ease that she would expect in Kansas City. Our sojourn will tally visits to 17 countries yet involves only 6 different currencies. Our Eurail Pass is a magic carpet of travel recognized by 28 countries. Our T-Mobile phone plan allows us virtually the same telephone and data access that we enjoy stateside, but extended to over 140 countries. We see familiar products and brands in virtually every store. I could go on…

What could any thinking nation ever expect to gain by succumbing to the siren song of xenophobia and isolationism. What insecurity drives those voices. Certainly, the forces of innovation that have conferred stardom upon a nation on the world stage sing an entirely different song.

Peace Everyone. Pete

Over the course of the last 2 months we have been guests in all levels and types of accommodations. We felt that our one night in The Amsterdam Canal Hotel was deserving of special mention for its combination of location, price, staff, and amenities.

The Amsterdam Canal Hotel is a charming boutique hotel located on an outer canal ring of the old city. It is just a 10 minute walk from the Rijksmuseum, and 20 minute walk from the Amsterdam Central Train Station. It is also conveniently located near a number of the city’s tram lines.

We found the price to be quite reasonable when we booked the room online, but we were not prepared for the surprising amenities included at no additional cost: In room Mini-bar with complimentary beverages, in room coffee and tea service, a bar and lounge that opens onto a deck aside the canal (the beer, wine, and soft drinks are complimentary!), and a remarkable breakfast bar that includes eggs and pancakes cooked to order, again at no additional cost.

The staff was friendly and most helpful. Our only “regret” is that our schedule did not allow for additional time at this wonderful little hotel.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. The three crosses that appear in the hotel’s logo are the crosses of St. Andrew and not a reference to the “Red Light District” which is not close to the hotel. The mark of the Three Crosses of St. Andrews is the official coat of arms for Amsterdam.

I am writing this on May 31st. We have concluded 2 very nice days with our friend from the 2013 Camino, Jacobien Ubbink and members of her family. It was really nice to be guests in her home and have the opportunity to reconnect in depth. We spent yesterday with her touring the Rijksmuseum and wandering amid the canals and byways of Amsterdam’s Old City.

The Rijksmuseum of Dutch Art and History has been located In Amsterdam since 1808. It houses a phenomenal collection of priceless paintings by such 17th Century masters as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Steen. The Museum has over 1 million objects in its collection, of which approximately 8,000 are currently on display.

Rembrandt’s masterwork, The Night Watch (1642} is the focal point of an entire gallery of masterpieces.

One of Rembrandt’s works that may be very familiar to Americans of my generation has been the package trademark for Dutch Masters Cigars since 1912.

The gentlemen in the painting are not discussing the finer points of a cigar’s “predominantly tobacco with non-tobacco ingredients”, but rather are a group of merchants evaluating cloth. Thus, the title of this 1662 masterwork is, “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild”.

Of course, there are other eye popping pieces from other periods as well.

The current museum building itself is a work of remarkable architecture. It was designed by Pierre Cuypers and built in 1885. It is one of the centerpieces that define this beautiful city.

I learned today that while we were touring the Rijksmuseum yesterday, another Camino friend from 2013 was there as well. Had we only known… Damn the bad luck that prevented us from meeting!!!

Amsterdam is perhaps the most culturally open place that I have ever visited. By my measure, the people of Amsterdam are friendly, polite, and English of a very high order is spoken throughout the city. Yes, there is the “Red Light District”, and yes the odor of burning marijuana may be encountered, but the city is safe, clean, steeped in history, and exceptionally charming.

One who is more concerned with the way that others live life than how he conducts his own should probably pass on visiting here. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Peace Everyone. Pete

We leave for Brussels Belgium tomorrow and will be visiting a young lady that we have maintained overseas contact with since 1991.

See: http://mediationkc.com/2018/03/22/a-chance-encounter/

On a somber note, a stroll by the home of Anne Frank, or a casual glance to the pavement provide reminders of the darker side of a history that touched these good people.

We arrived by plane today in Amsterdam. As we crossed the coast from the North Sea it was striking to observe the flatness of the landscape and tidy organization of roadways below us. This was in stark contrast to the rugged mountains of Scotland, but to be expected since much of this country is ocean floor that has been reclaimed from the sea.

We are guests of Jacobien Ubbink and her family. We met Jacobien in 2013 while walking the Camino. As with many of the pilgrims we met on that journey, we have maintained contact and share many precious memories.

Jacobien’s home is located in the town of Lelystad in central Netherlands. This area was reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s. Her home is approximately 10 feet below sea level and on the shore of a canal. We walked along that canal and came to a pumping station and ship lock. The pumping station is one of the network that hold the sea at bay and discharge water from the reclaimed land to the water side of the elaborate network of dykes. It was our good fortune to arrive at the lock in time to watch a power barge enter the lock and descend from the lakeside impoundment 18 feet to the level of the canal.

We continued our walk to a Marina. While enjoying drinks and some snacks, storm clouds rolled in and unleashed a torrent of hail and rain. After the rain subsided we began the 20 minute walk back to Jacobien’s home. Unfortunately, we did not make it before round two fell upon us. We arrived soaked to the bone! Were that all then we could chock the experience up as just a matter of great fun. However, the small backpack that I was wearing contained our iPads and it was not sufficiently waterproof. Later in the evening we discovered that Christine‘s iPad would not turn on at all, and mine was not acting “normal”. I am writing these notes on my iPhone and hoping that my iPad will be in working order later this evening. The iPad is my principal vehicle for transferring photographs from my camera to you. I am keeping my fingers crossed! If you read this and there are no pictures then you know that the news is not good.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. We learned today that Holland and the Netherlands are not interchangeable terms for the same nation. “Holland” is actually two provinces, North Holland and South Holland, one containing Amsterdam and the other containing Rotterdam. The Netherlands are comprised of 12 different provinces.

PPS. The iPad is working, sort of. Christine’s is “dead”. Hopefully things will dry out more and improve.