Freezing rain splashed off the massive stone walls of Belozersky Monastery, pelted my face, and trickled down my neck. I pulled my hood closer and surveyed the leaden surroundings. On my left, the monastery loomed dense and gray, threatening to tip the earth. Ahead of me lay a gray corpse of a lake. The only relief from the monotonous landscape was a stand of birch trees to my right, rising white and stately from a luxurious patch of grass.
“Beautiful, are they not?” remarked my tour guide. “Every spring and summer, we tap the trees for their sap, which is used to make a drink that has curative properties. Some of the sap is even frozen, so we have a supply throughout the winter.”
I had seen dense stands of white Birch trees earlier on my voyage down the Volga-Baltic waterway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. At one point I braved teeth-chattering temperatures to capture photos of flame tipped birches in the setting autumn sun. But as I would discover, to Russians, birches are more than just a pretty picture. Read More
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.