Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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I have come full circle. At the tender age of 17, I fled from my parents house, determined to make my way in the world according to my own rules. Now, 45 years later, I am back home again.

Eight years ago I took a tremendous leap of faith and left my corporate life behind to travel the world and recreate myself as a writer and photographer. I was successful for many reasons. I believe I can do whatever I set out to do, I am fearless, and I have a high tolerance for risk. But undoubtedly what has served me best is the concept of impermanence.

Stuffing ourselves at our Thanksgiving day breakfast. Left to right: my sister Linda; my niece Kelly; nephew-in-law Tony; brother-in-law Dale; niece Gina; and sister Nancy

Stuffing ourselves at our Thanksgiving day breakfast. Left to right: my sister Linda; my niece Kelly; nephew-in-law Tony; brother-in-law Dale; niece Gina; and sister Nancy

I realize that no two seconds are the same. No two experiences are the same. The molecule that touches my skin one second is a different size, shape, and chemical makeup from the next molecule. Sunshine falling across my face changes according to time and weather. I can never step into the same stream twice, as the volume, currents, and eddies of water change from moment to moment. Indeed, change is the only permanent thing in the universe.

And so, I was prepared for the change when it came. Long ago, I promised my father that I would come back home should he ever need me. That time is now. At 88, his health is declining. With the exception of a few brief trips, I have been living with him in the Chicagoland area for most of this year. Read More

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The language of a country is more than the spoken word. Music, dance, theater, art, history, food, and literature combine with language to weave a tapestry that makes every country I visit unique. Though I always try to delve deeply into local cultures, it can be difficult to have those deep, rich experiences that I crave, especially when my time is limited. I was concerned about this when I visited Russia, as my Waterway of the Tsars river cruise with Viking River would only be two weeks long. I need not have worried. Viking took great pains to create experiences that provided unique insight into Russian culture, and nowhere was this more evident than in the rural towns we visited as we sailed the Volga-Baltic Waterway. The video below shows a small sample of the cultural activities we attended in these small rural communities:
 

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Author Miriam Beard, daughter of the American historians Charles A. and Mary R. Beard said, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

The longer I travel, the more I realize the truth of this statement. Prior to visiting Paris for the first time, I associated it with the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum. After three visits, the City of Light evoked the yeasty aroma of fresh-baked bread from the boulangerie and sipping espresso at sidewalk cafes. Mexico once meant the artificially created tourist island of Cancun. Four and a half months of wandering around the country made Mexico synonymous with its Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns), where families emerge from their houses in the cool of the evening to share the gossip and exchange news. Everywhere I go, a shift happens deep within me as I immerse in the local culture.

Russia was no different. I expected and saw broad boulevards choked with traffic, and immense stark buildings. I visited Red Square and the Kremlin in Moscow, as well as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But by the end of my journey, more than any of the iconic tourist sights, the essence of Russia was defined by its exquisite churches.

Dormition Cathedral, Patriarchs Palace and Church of the Twelve Apostles, Bell Tower of Ivan the Great in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

Dormition Cathedral, Patriarchs Palace and Church of the Twelve Apostles, Bell Tower of Ivan the Great in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

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Russia had intrigued me for years, but traveling solo in this vast land where few speak English had always seemed a daunting prospect. My recent trip to Berlin had not helped; a tour guide insisted that Russia was the only place on earth where the life expectancy was lower than it had been 50 years ago, due to excessive use of alcohol. To my stereotype of a dark, brooding people, shackled by an oppressive regime that controlled every nuance of society and assigned KGB agents to spy on tourists, I added mental images of streets littered with drunken, homeless people. But it was too late to worry. Prior to arriving in Berlin I had finally arranged to visit Russia. There was no turning back.

Fortunately, I had chosen to travel with Viking River Cruises on their Waterway of the Tsars cruise, a 13-day voyage between Moscow and St. Petersburg on the Volga-Baltic Waterway, which promised an English-speaking crew and local, bilingual tour guides. From the moment I stepped on board the Viking Akun in Moscow, I knew I’d made the right decision. Built in 1989, my ship had originally sailed the Black Sea and later, served as an oil platform on Lake Ladoga. Viking acquired the ship in 2013; after a complete refurbishing it was launched as the Viking Akun in May of this year.

My spacious stateroom aboard the Viking Akun

My spacious stateroom aboard the Viking Akun

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People visit Berlin for the history of the Berlin Wall, to stand in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate and walk down the Unter den Linden, and for its constantly evolving gallery and clubbing scene. So much has been written on these attributes that there is little to add. But beyond these well-know attractions lies a surprising number of reasons to visit Berlin that few talk about, including the following:

The Food:

Many places I visit are fairly one-dimensional where food is concerned. But Berlin, being home to immigrants from all over the world, has embraced multi-cultural cuisine to a degree I’ve rarely seen. The city has 4,650 restaurants and more doner kebab shops than Istanbul! Within a five block radius of my apartment in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg I found Thai, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Korean, Croatian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Vegetarian, French, and Turkish restaurants, plus a soup bar, a salad bar, a delicatessen, and numerous coffee shops. And of course, you can’t forget traditional German food, especially the pretzels, sausage sandwiches, and currywurst sold at kiosks all around the city.

Open-air cafe on the banks of the River Spree

Open-air cafe on the banks of the River Spree

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Twenty five years ago, on the evening of 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin had been on my travel wish list for a long time. With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall looming, I decided to put it off no longer.

The city did not immediately impress me. The apartment I rented for a week was in a 15-story high rise in the Kreuzberg area, just a ten minute stroll from the infamous Checkpoint Charlie that marked the border between the American and Soviet sectors in the days when there was still an East and West Berlin. From my 4th floor window I looked down on a sea of squat, uninteresting structures. Some of this uninspired architecture owes it’s existence to Hitler, who espoused a Nationalist style that valued function over form and eschewed even the most basic ornamentation. But to blame Hitler solely would be a mistake. By the end of World War Two, 60% of the city’s buildings had been razed and another 20% were unusable.

Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which sat in the no-man's land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War

Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which sat in the no-man’s land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. Today it is the symbol of Berlin and the reunification of Germany.

Russians troops, who reached the city in December of 1945, were intent upon revenge for the 20 million of their countrymen who had fallen. Berliners fought, not on behalf of the Third Reich, but in a desperate attempt to protect their families. After surrender, even the buildings still standing were pocked by mortar shells and bullet holes. Berlin was little more than a pile of bricks.

“It was women who rebuilt the city,” one of my tour guides from Context Walking Tours explained. “So many of the men had been killed in the war. Every day the women, my mother among them, would go to the streets to clean and stack the bricks so they could be reused.” In the face of such devastation, little consideration was given to designing beautiful buildings. Read More