Part III: Travels in the Baltic: Memorable voyage abroad makes it hard to bid 'sudie'
After almost two weeks in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and after hearing of the atrocities wreaked on them by their neighbor Germany, I must admit I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the three days SmarTours had scheduled for us in Berlin.
We had visited Germany's largest city 15 years ago, soon after The Wall went down. Back then we weren't impressed by either the west sector, with its rampant and very glossary consumerism, represented along the Kurfurstendam, or by the east sector, which was pretty bedraggled after the Russians had mismanaged it for four decades.
I must say we were pleasantly surprised.
We were booked into a beautifully appointed NH hotel, part of a huge Spanish chain.
After checking in, our new guide was Daniele, a sprightly young woman with a fine sense of humor and plenty of history at her beck and call.
One stop was a chunk of the Berlin Wall still standing and displaying a HUGE photo of Russian premier Leonid Brezhnev, kissing open-mouthed on the lips of then East German chancellor Erich Hoenecker, looking rather embarrassed.
"Apparently Premiere Brezhnev had a few too many vodkas on his flight from Moscow," said Daniele, "or too many bottles of vodka."
Daniele was very good at explaining the "new" Germany.
One shocker: It is now illegal and fineable if the authorities ever catch anyone singing the first line of the country's old national anthem.
Remember? "Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles!" meaning "Germany, Germany, over everyone."
Fifteen years ago, our tour guide complained that under Russian control, East Germans had forgotten how to work.
They seem to have remembered because we were amazed when the tour bus took us to the east part, which has been transformed into the beautiful neighborhood it once was.
Apparently the German ability to blow things up and then rebuild them is a double-edged sword.
At night we dined in a cozy bistro and imagined what it would have been like back in the early '30s when Sally Bowles belted out songs at the Cabaret.
And in the morning, after an awesome breakfast, we took a boat ride which dropped us off at the incredible Pergamon Museum, home of treasures from the days of Nebuchadnezzar and the recently restored award winning Neues Museum, designed by David Chipperfield.
Later we signed up for a tour of nearby Potsdam. The trip cost $60 per person.
Our advice? Go on your own and hire a guide to show you around Sans Souci, Frederick the Great's incredible Rococo palace, where he hung out with his male pals, while his wife stayed home and tapped her foot in Berlin.
Our bus guide told us nothing, never mentioned the Potsdam conference, refused to drive by the palace where it was held.
Again: Do it yourself. And the guide to Sans Souci you want to hire is the well-informed Britta Arnold.
That night we ate in an old-style beer garden and stoked up on wiener schnitzel for more touring on the following day.
A high point for me turned out to be the Friedrichstrasse local train station near our hotel, its basement loaded with stores and banks and food courts that would put the newly remodeled Grand Central Station to shame.
Off we flew to our last destination, Helsinki, Finland.
Years ago, I read an article by John Updike in the New Yorker. He told of his first and only journey to Finland. The University of Turku had offered him an honorary doctorate.
Updike said he'd come, under one condition. He had always admired Finland ever since it stood up to Russia in the Russo-Finnish War and he wanted a guided tour of the country.
Finland was only too glad to oblige.
An enthusiastic guide told Updike that, "We like to think of Finland as the America of Europe."
"No way," said Updike. "Maybe the Minnesota of Europe, but not the America of."
So with that as an introduction, I wasn't expecting much.
Was I mistaken!
Our guide Evalisa met us at the airport and because we only had 16 hours in Helsinki she immediately took us on a long bus tour of this beautiful city, called "The White City on the Baltic."
From its seaport, it actually gleams, like the domed neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral built during the reign of Alexander I, who insisted that it was too austere. He paid them to add a few extra parapets, so it would look like a "real" church.
Surprisingly, it did not result in even one Lutheran schism.
Evalisa was full of many other statistics about Finland, even about the hot-lunch program she enjoyed as a rural student many years ago.
"At noon, we were fed hot porridge," said Evalisa. "To get it, all we had to do is bring to school a pail of lingonberries."
She also told us where we might find good meals near our hotel, The Scandic, a beautifully restored warehouse at the city's seaport.
It was so beautiful, Ralph and Grace Sulerud and we decided to stay put and eat in its restaurant, while our more adventurous colleagues ventured out into an icy windstorm that just about blew them into the sea.
Our meals were excellent. We ordered a "Laplander" hors d'ouevres tray, which included pork ribs confit and raw reindeer carpaccio.
The next morning we bade a somewhat tearful farewell to our new friends and about to be former traveling companions, boarded a FinnAir airbus and headed for New York's JFK.
It was a memorable trip and we'll long remember the sites we saw, the history we learned and the friends we made.
So "dekojuh" (pronounced ah-choo) SmarTours, Stephan, Daniele, Evalisa, "dekojuh, dekojuh," (which means "thank you, thank you") and "sudie" (pronounced su-deah, which means "goodbye.")
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.