OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW — IN FINLAND

Well, here we are in yet another decade, And, like much of the previous 10 years, with a few exceptions, so far so bad. As the outside world turns increasingly partisan and dark, I found myself seeking some spiritual sustenance from the past. I fastened on a similar passing of time 30 years ago: the last days of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, a decade which proved pivotal in my life and career in a way I never thought possible. My reflections were likely heightened by the fact that it all took place in the country where my mother was born, Finland.

I was lucky enough to be living in Paris that year, so it had seemed only natural to spend Christmas and New Year’s revisiting my ancestral roots. It was wonderful. Sparkling snow covered the fields and country roads of the coastal farming village that had anchored my grandmother’s side of the family for countless generations. Cheeks reddened in the biting cold. The night of the winter solstice, we made a moving visit to the gravesites of those who went before us, clearing away the snow and lighting candles.

Days were spent in a never-ending round of housecalls, warmed by festive, mulled “glogg” that miraculously improved my rough Swedish. Or so I thought. (My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, living along the eastern edges of the Gulf of Bothnia. Their first language remains Swedish.) And, of course, everyone wished everyone a hearty “God Jul!” (“Merry Christmas”) at every possible moment.

(Moster Signe at the head of the table)

On Christmas Eve, we gathered for the traditional feast at the red, wood-frame home of Moster Signe, my great aunt. There are pictures of my mother as a young girl playing in the snow outside the same house more than 60 years earlier. The Jultomten did not forget us, arriving just as dinner concluded. With his red coat, elfish hat and white beard, he sent the youngsters into paroxysms of excitement, as he handed out presents.

The next night, as we headed out along the rural, snow-packed road to my cousin’s house, the skies suddenly erupted into the most magnificent display of Northern Lights I have ever seen. They seemed to pour from the heavens in a stunning array of kaleidoscopic reds, greens and whites that took our breath away. They moved, they danced, they shimmered against the pitch blackness of the starless sky. Like most Canadians, I had witnessed the Northern Lights, but nothing like this, nothing like the way they seemed to be raining directly down upon us. We felt humbled, insignificant. I am a non-believer, but at that moment, it really did feel like God, or something supernatural, was speaking to us, as we stood, silent and alone amid the surrounding fields and forests.

There were also visits to those members of my grandfather’s side of the family who had migrated to nearby city of Vasa from their native Sideby, a fishing and farming village further south. Each was accompanied by serving after serving of pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and cardamom-flavoured mamas bröd, washed down with endless cups of kaffe – anything to fill the pauses when my Swedish wasn’t up to the conversation. “Varsågod!” (“Welcome to eat and drink…”) echoes still.

(Foster Mia, my great aunt on my grandfather’s side, 3rd from left. That’s me on the right, clowning around to avoid speaking Swedish…)

On the last day of December, drowning in coffee and stuffed with goodies, it was time to travel back to Helsinki — or Helsingfors, as we Swedes call it — for the grand finale of the 1980’s. It was unforgettable, though not in the way we expected. Arriving from Vasa by snail train at the city’s magnificent railway station, we eventually made our way to the heart of Helsinki’s historic Senate Square for the anticipated New Year’s Eve festivities.

Helsinki Cathedral at Senate Square, Finland in winter in the evening.

But my god, it was cold, one of those bone-chilling, deep freezes that go right through you, no matter how warmly you dress. We took refuge in the massive Cathedral looking out over the Square, at the top of a long flight of steps. No pew was ever more comfortable. Alas, with the clock ticking ever closer towards midnight, we forced our shivering selves to re-join the throngs of revelers waiting for the big moment. Many had clearly been fortifying themselves against the chill by consuming large amounts of alcohol.

At the stroke of twelve, Mayor Raimo Ilaskivi (thank you, Google) stepped before a mike at the top of the Cathedral stairs and proclaimed the New Year, with a few added homilies. He could barely be heard over the din of loud, jumbo firecrackers being set off everywhere in the crowd. A thick pall of smoke from the many firecrackers quickly drifted upwards, virtually obscuring the mayor, who beat a hasty retreat.

With all the explosions and smoke, the scene might have come from a war movie. Firecrackers set off on streets or back alleys at Hallowe’en are one thing. Large, cannonading firecrackers lit by well-oiled celebrants in the middle of crowds of people is quite another. It was frightening. A small band played something or other, before they, too, disappeared. And that was that. Hyvää Uutta Vuotta! Gott Nytt År! Happy New Year!

Our valour vanished with Mayor Ilaskivi and the 1980s. We opted for good old Canadian discretion over good old firecracker mayhem and made our way back through the frigid Finnish streets to the peace and quiet of my cousin’s apartment.

The first morning of 1990 dawned bright and beautiful, without a cloud in the sky. There was little evidence of the previous night’s boisterous partying, except for empty vodka bottles littering the streets. That afternoon, we took in the showdown match between Canada and the Soviet Union in the World Junior hockey tournament held that year in Finland. Marvellously, the young Canadians stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to topple the mighty Ruskies, who were led by future Canucks superstar Pavel Bure.

(Yes, that is an autograph from the former premier of Saskatchewan, Grant Devine, but that’s another story…)

It was an auspicious way to mark the end of the 1980s and my time in Finland, and begin to contemplate the decade that lay ahead. I had no idea they would be life-changing – hired by the Globe and Mail, co-winner of a Michener Award, marriage and four years as the Globe’s China correspondent in Beijing. But perhaps, looking down from somewhere, my ancestors saw it coming all along.

 Three decades later, as I fade further into retirement, I have a fingers-crossed wish for the next 10 years, despite their rocky start: may the 2020s be just as roaring as the storied 1920s. They might even prompt me to return to Paris and resume my search for the ghost of Hemingway.

DODGING DANGER IN PARADISE

It’s a while since I’ve been caught up in a world-wide news event, especially one where I MIGHT HAVE DIED. But there we were, after a five a.m. wake-up call by Kauai’s ubiquitous red roosters, on the first day of our holiday, groggily sipping our coffee in the Saturday morning sunshine. All of a sudden, the island quiet was pierced by an urgent loud buzz on our cellphone. It sounded like an Amber Alert on steroids. “What the heck was that?” I said out loud to other breakfasters gathered on the patio of our inn. No one looked up from their buttered toast. Thinking it was just some sort of glitch, we didn’t investigate further. Then, my companion reported back from the office. The woman behind the front desk had said something about a missile threat, as she busied herself with the office routine. The patio remained an oasis of calm. I glanced at the sky, saw nothing and continued with my coffee. Nobody, it seemed, including ourselves, was going to be bothered about a little thing like nuclear annihilation. After all, we were on holiday.

When I subsequently checked the Globe and Mail website, I discovered that the alert had actually been pretty scary, the nonchalance by our front desk clerk notwithstanding. ‘SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Yikes. And the Hawaiian missile alarm was at the top of the Globe’s story list. We’d been part of history, bad coffee and all.

A little later, when we traipsed in to nearby, sleepy Lihue, I asked some of the locals how they’d dealt with the alert. Unlike reports of panic elsewhere, people seemed to have taken it in their laid-back stride.

Our cab driver said she’d been stuck in an unrelated traffic jam. She did what anyone would do facing an incoming ballistic missile. She phoned her supervisor. Her boss told her not to worry. The boss’s husband was in the military, and he’d confirmed it was a false alarm. The volunteer at the local museum said he’d slept through the whole thing. “If it was real, that’s the best way to go.” I agreed.

A genial, bearded Uber driver was the only person I talked to who actually reacted to the alert. He’d been at his Saturday men’s Bible class (I refrained from asking whether he thought the Apocalypse was coming at last…). All their phones went off at once, and everyone rushed outside. He immediately phoned his wife with specific instructions: “Stay inside. Don’t go to that garage sale!”

As we talked, he noted that some of those who hadn’t taken it seriously questioned why anyone would launch a ballistic missile towards Kauai. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility is on the island, right by the wonderfully-named Barking Sands. The PMRF’s latest mission is to track incoming missiles and shoot them down. “So we could have been a target,” he said, cheerfully.

Another fellow I spoke to further up island was rational about it. His community tests its emergency sirens once a month, to ensure their readiness in case of an incoming tsunami or other calamity. He got the alert, poked his head out the door, heard no sirens and went back inside, figuring he was going to see the sun set on another day in paradise, without a mushroom cloud obscuring the view. Plus, as many observed: “Seek shelter? Like, where, dude?” This is Hawaii. According to a local newspaper round-up, one guy took refuge with his son behind a palm tree…

I particularly liked a few other reactions. Who should be a longtime permanent resident of Kauai, but Samantha Geimer, the victim in the Roman Polanski child sex abuse case? On Facebook, noting the blasé indifference around her, she posted: “I guess panicking in Hawaii is making coffee and shrugging our shoulders.” A youngster phoned his mom to tell her a ballistic missile was coming their way. “OK, I’m at the farmers’ market,” she replied. And finally, a tourist from Utah sent a text to her kids, saying: “This could be it. I love you.” They texted back: “Send us a picture.”

And that was that. There were reports of understandable panic elsewhere, but overall, on beautiful Kauai, the response to possible nuclear annihilation seemed to be: keep calm and carry on. It’s probably not real, and if it is real, what can you do?

On reflection, I am little less sanguine about the bizarre incident. First of all, the frightening alert was apparently put out by an employee “during a shift change”. Hey, we’ve all experienced shift changes. Issuing a ballistic missile alert is just one of those things that can happen, right?….But I mean, really??? And then it took an unforgiveable 38 minutes to issue a cell phone correction. (Many got the news much earlier from Congresswoman Tulsi Garbbard, who posted her own “all-clear” message a mere 12 minutes after the alert.) Those twin incompetencies are truly beyond belief, particularly given the two nutbars allegedly in charge of North Korea and the USA, who make anything seem possible. (In the winning way that is coming to characterize society these days, the unfortunate who put out the alert has received “dozens of death threats by fax, phone and social media,” officials said.)

Meanwhile, for us veterans of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this brought back a lot of unwanted memories, from a time when “Duck and Cover” exercises were very real. During crunch day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we went to school, not knowing if we would be coming back home. It was truly an eerie and frightening feeling. But of course, we still did exactly what many Islanders did on Saturday. We went about our normal routine. If the bomb was coming, so be it.

So for now, ballistic missile dodged. Slap on the sunscreen.

 

WHEN TOURS GO BAD….

Destination: sweet, verdant, diminutive, demilitarized Costa Rica. I hadn’t been for more than 30 years, when being an 500px-Congo11independent traveller meant a toughened bum from endless bumps on jarring, ramshackle buses. But the sight of a storied DC-3 drifting over the hills and swooping down on the tiny, deserted runway of Quepos to carry us back to San José was worth every ache and pain. I felt like Errol Flynn in one of those jungle movies. That was then.

There were no DC-3’s or local buses on this trip. Since some friends were coming along, we opted for a package tour, organized by a British adventure tour company. It was far from luxury, but it exacted a good chunk of change, nevertheless, and promised access to top sites, exotic birds, and beach. Not everything went well. I like a good whine when I know about. (Rest assured i loved the trip, just having fun with the stuff that went wrong. Not to be taken too seriously.…)

  1. Black Top cab to the airport didn’t arrive for 25 minutes. When unapologetic driver finally showed up, he refused to take us to the airport! “It’s the end of my shift,” he said. Unbelievable. We called another taxi and still made our flight. But never again, Black Top.
  1. We were booked into the Tournon Hotel, on the fringes of a dodgy area of San José. I soon thought of it as the Tournoff Hotel. Cheerless. Sad, intermittent shower. Far worse was the din after dark. Just outside our room, cars and motorcycles roared by all night. Sleep, perchance to toss and turn.
  2. On night number two, the wee small hours were even noisier. Traffic streaming by. Then the sound of an accident. Bang! Angry voices. Arguments. Shouting. Not long afterwards: “Pow!” Gunshot? Blown tire? We didn’t check. More yelling. The overnight symphony was capped by earsplitting music from someone’s “ghetto blaster” at 4 a.m. At least we had something to talk about over our pretty-awful breakfast of ice-cold camembert served with broken crackers.
  3. As we gathered to board our mini-bus for the outlying charms of Costa Rica, we discovered the tour company couldn’t count. There weren’t the 12 voyagers on the company’s list, but 16 of us. Head-scratching by the tour guide, delays, repacking of luggage on the roof instead of inside the mini-bus. Full-up seating. Oh well, they were only out by 33 per cent. Math is hard.
  4. By the time we left, it was raining. Hard. Off we went to Poas Volcano, still active and featuring one of the largest craters in the world, plus a pristine crater lake. This is what we saw.

P1100351Here’s our happy group, actually chilled, besides being wet and miserable. The tropics, you say? P1100349 6. Overnight at La Fortuna. Because of the numbers snafu, our room was at the back of the rather nice motel, our only view one of whitewashed walls. Because chairs were put outside all those rooms facing the lush, tropical vegetation fronting the motel, we had chairs, too, for a delightful view of the wall, 10 feet away. 7. Next day we hiked a trail for a view of the spectacular, coned Arenal Volcano, which erupted in 1968 after hundreds of years of dormancy, destroying three villages and killing 87 people. One of Costa Rica’s most iconic images was enshrouded in thick clouds. This was as much of it as we saw.

  1. P11004608. After a long, afternoon drive over some devilish, “oh my god” roads, we crawled into the marvellous rainforest area of Monteverde. The rain stopped. There was even a rainbow. Our reward? Demotion from the two-star lodgings listed on our agenda into the rustic, one star, Jardines Hotel. No explanation. The sign was not encouraging.
  2. P1100680

Ours was fine, but rooms for some others in our group were so bad – windowless, containing bunk beds and not much else –alternative accommodation had to be found for them in town. Forceful, overnight winds rattled the more rickety rooms, blowing one person’s medical bag, complete with her diabetes kit, off the sink counter into the toilet bowl.

  1. Still tired, still grumpy, we travelled to our morning destination, the justly-celebrated Monteverde Rainforest. The tour company’s local agents failed to forward our pre-paid entrance fees, forcing us to fork out $17 from our own pockets. We did get the money back – the morning of our departure.
  2. Foregoing the adventuresome Zip Line, we opted for the more sedate Cloud Walk featuring hanging bridges through the tops of the rain forest. By the end, we were drenched by the driving, persistent rain. “Well, they do call it a rain forest,” a sodden somebody said. (Disclosure: despite the downpour, we loved every moment of it. Really a marvellous part of the world.)
  3. 11081094_10155325325155137_7716737726139166047_nDespite all the ballyhoo and those hundreds of postcards of colourful amphibians,  we saw no frogs. Not one.

Oh, all right. Even I can’t winge forever about a trip to a place as beautiful as Costa Rica. We saw many, truly wonderful birds, lots of wild monkeys, a three-toed sloth, an anteater, iguanas, crocodiles and a zillion vultures. The beaches, which we hit after the rainforest, were fabulous, and the living was easy. It’s always nice to be in a country with a national public health system and no army. “Pura Vida.” But next time, no tour company. Our way home was eased by the magical appearance of the world’s first rock video: Bob Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues  (with Allan Ginsberg in the background), amid the humdrum dining atmosphere of the LA International Airport. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…” P1100970

I SEE BY THE PAPERS….

newspaper

The late, great David Carr, media reporter for the New York Times, continued to value newspapers, even as he covered the rapidly-changing online media world that is threatening their existence with free, easily-accessible, short-attention span hits. Carr read two or three papers every morning before heading into work, and whenever he was in a new city, he relished reading the local newspaper. He said it gave him a sense of the buzz and mood of the place that no travel guide or web site provided.

I, too, always buy the local paper when I’m travelling. There is never a dearth of stories offering a glimpse of life outside one’s own navel-gazing metropolis (vote ‘Yes’).

So it was recently, as I passed through LA’s International Airport and the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. At both terminals, I seemed to be the only person reading a newspaper. The LA Times, a slimmed-down sylph of its former bulky self, cost a buck. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution set me back two American greenbacks, dollars, but I got to read a lot about the Hawks and Braves.

In compliance with the journalism-killing spirit of providing free information, herewith the top ten things I found interesting from the Atlanta and LA papers. As WAC Bennett used to say: “Nothing is freer than free, my friend.”

1. Besides the drought, guess what else Los Angeles is all in knots about? Yep, the ruination of longstanding 2286361143_52184e9eb3_zneighbourhoods. More and more good homes are being torn down and replaced with much bigger residences on the same lot. Gee, that sounds familiar. In LA, they call this ‘mansionization’, and they’re actually poised to do something about it. City councillors want temporary restrictions on such teardowns, while city officials work at tightening the rules against ‘mansionization’. In some historic areas, teardowns would be banned completely. In other districts, rebuilds would be limited to a 20 per cent increase in size. Strangely, developers are fighting the plan to curb their right to make as much money as possible.

2. So you think Vancouver has a problem with low voter turnout? In LA’s municipal elections earlier this month, a measly 10 per cent of eligible voters managed to make it to the polls.

3. The State of Georgia has a big problem with crumbling transportation infrastructure. While we winge about a miniscule one half of one percent increase in the sales tax to pay for both road and transit improvements (vote ‘yes’), state legislators in Georgia have voted to help pay for $1 billion in transportation upgrades with a gas tax of 24 cents a gallon (that’s not per litre, that’s per gallon!). Other levies include a $5 tax on car rentals, $200 user fees for electric vehicles, and giving cities and counties the power to apply a sales tax on gasoline. Seems Vancouver isn’t the only place where elected representatives are struggling to cope with the fact that money to fund better services doesn’t grow on trees.

4. In the 8th fattest country in the world, it’s not easy getting people to move their ample butts. A fitness column in the Journal-Constitution advises some of the saddest excuses for physical activity I’ve ever seen. “Expert tips” include such strenuous huff-and-puffing as: drinking a glass of water as soon as you wake up; hand delivering a note to a colleague instead of emailing it; walking while making a phone call; and, my particular favourite, varying your sitting position. So that’s how those 60-year old Swedes do it….It ain’t easy being lean.

(Reminds me of an excessively portly friend, who was also an inveterate chain-smoker. I once asked him why he didn’t just buy a carton of cigarettes, rather than going to the store across the street every few hours or so for a new pack of cigs. “I need the exercise,” he replied.)

5. Worst Sound of Music lede of the century: “The hills are live with the sound of a big lucrative anniversary.”

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6. The drought in California. “Dry enough for you?” It’s been breaking bad for more than three years now, and getting worse. Consider. March 16 was the fourth straight day in downtown LA with temperatures over 90 degrees (F). That hadn’t happened in March since record-keeping began in 1877.

Under new drought rules, restaurants are ordered to serve water only on request, hotels must offer guests the option of not having their towels and linens washed, and landscape irrigation is banned for 48 hours after any rainfall, however miniscule.

Meanwhile, as well owners pull up water from ever deeper levels, parts of the San Joaquin Valley “are deflating like a tire with a slow leak,” the Times reported. Irrigation canals are cracking, roads are buckling and storage space in the valley’s vast aquifer is being permanently depleted. Attempts by water officials to curb irrigation are being resisted. “Telling people they have to stop irrigating is a huge economic thing,” said one worried official. “Guys are going to get their guns out.”

Biggest immediate worry is the state’s mountain snowpack, currently a frightful 12 per cent of its normal level at this time of year. Yet Californians continue to fall short of water conservation targets. During the driest January on record, daily water use, while down slightly from the previous year, was 6 million gallons per person higher than December totals.

7. I love this LA Times correction: “In the March 17 Calendar section, a news brief about the live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” referred to the character of Mrs. Potts as a teacup. She is a teapot.” Short and stout, presumably….

8. Throwing caution to the winds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a feature called “The Vent”, which allows people like me to be cranky in print. This was the angriest vent on March 18: “I am continually appalled at the number of men I see who leave the restroom without washing their hands. How disgusting and ignorant.” Thus, does civilization crumble…

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9. Teachers are in court in Atlanta, too. Only not on something as picayune as classroom working and learning conditions, as in B.C. A dozen local teachers are accused of correcting answers on student tests to ensure higher scores, making them eligible for bonuses and raises. But their trial has entered the realm of Alice in Wonderland. Zealous prosecutors have charged the teachers with, of all things, racketeering, a crime normally associated with the mob and organized crime. “Teachers? Racketeers? Really?” thundered defense attorney Akil Secret. The result has been the longest and largest criminal trial in the history of Georgia. Several other teachers, who cut a deal and testified for the prosecution, were derided by the defense as “nothing but a menagerie of misfits and malcontents”. Not much “teachin’ the Golden Rule” on either side, it seems. (UPDATE: After three days deliberation, the jury has yet to reach a verdict.)

10. And finally, there was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s very merry “news quiz”. Question one: “A man reported as acting erratically and running naked through the neighbourhood was shot and killed by police in what county?” Question two: “After a customer was shot and killed in the parking lot, the Kroger on Ponce de Leon has offered an award for how much to find his killer? Perfect for classroom discusson. To say nothing of question three: “A sanitation worker in what local city was jailed for collective trash too early?” What a country. I’ll stick with Quinn’s Quiz, thanks.

WHEN THE WALL CAME TUMBLING DOWN

A-gap-in-the-Berlin-Wall--001 Twenty-five years ago. How time flies.

As it happened, I was in the neighbourhood the day the Cold War’s most enduring symbol disappeared in a frenzy of exuberant East Berliners and belching Trabants streaming past the downed concrete. Alas, however, I was not with the cheering masses, but stuck on a train from hell headed to Warsaw, idling in the East Berlin Bahnhof for a passport check, or some such thing. Gazing at the stolid, uniformed East German soldiers and railway attendants, I remember thinking: “The only country and system you have ever known is about to collapse. What can possibly be going through your minds?” Yet the cliché of stern, unsmiling, uniformed East German guards remained frozen in time. My “papers” were scrutinized with the same thoroughness that had been inflicted for years on Westerners travelling through their communist bastion.

Of course, I should have hopped off the train and witnessed history in the making. But, just as I chose to miss Dylan and the Band at Massey Hall in 1965, I let this opportunity slip by, too. Sigh.

Image 9Still, being in Warsaw while East Germany teetered also had its fascination. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was no longer prepared to intervene in its so-called satellite states, Poland was the first of the East Bloc countries to embrace democracy, Recent elections had been won overwhelmingly by Solidarność. Many of their marvellous campaign posters featuring Gary Cooper in High Noon remained on walls and storefronts.

Poland was in transition, its rigid state economy crumbling. As I worked on a freelance radio documentary for Sunday Morning with the theme: ‘Can Poles make it through the winter?’, I visited crowded soup kitchens and poorly-stocked grocery stores. I vividly remember an old woman in tears over her small purchase of potatoes. “It’s all I can afford,” she wept, her meagre pension eroded by inflation. Shaken, my translator, a Solidarity activist imbued with the bright future of a non-communist Poland, quietly slipped her some money.

It was the dawn of the free market in Poland. An entrepreneur had set up the country’s first fledgling stock market on the second floor of the city’s ramshackle, old Fisherman’s Hall. A cab driver told me that now, for the first time, he could buy bananas. The independent, pro-Solidarity newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had just been launched. I visited its offices in a former kindergarten in a leafy, residential area of Warsaw. The paper’s star columnist was ensconced in a cubby hole that was once a washroom. Almost everyone else worked on desks scattered about the ex-school’s large open area. It felt like a student newspaper. Today, the Gazeta Wyborcza is the second largest newspaper in Poland.

But I most remember my first night in Warsaw, when I walked into the darkened main square of its beautifully-restored Old Town. A couple of guys, clearly from the country, were selling cheese by candlelight from the back of an old van. There was such simplicity to the scene as money and cheese changed hands, only the low hum of their voices breaking the silence of the vast, empty square. I thought to myself: “Thus, capitalism begins in Poland.”

There was still something about being on the ground floor of a revolution, even without the immediacy of East Berlin.

Poles, meanwhile, were transfixed by the joyous scenes in that long-divided city. At the press centre, the lone television was tuned to CNN. Employees watched non-stop. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Hardline East Germany, with the Stasi, the shoot-to-kill border guards and everything else, succumbing to the people? It didn’t seem possible. But in this case, the over-used, simplistic phrase was right. The tearing down of the hated Berlin Wall really did mark the end of the Cold War.Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution cranked up to take Havel to the Castle. Over Christmas, the odious Ceausescu’s were shot in Romania. Hungary consolidated its democratic advances. In no time, the once-mighty Warsaw Pact was history.

To think, when I headed to Europe in the fall of 1989 for a year’s stay in Paris, the big story was going to be the growing consolidation and unity of the EU. (That’s going well…..) When my train passed through East Berlin on the way back from Warsaw, the guards were gone. A single station attendant checked my ticket and passport with all the attentiveness of a skytrain guy.

A while later, I struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow from Oslo. He had boarded the train at East Berlin, and couldn’t stop talking about what it was like being among the hundreds of thousands of giddy Wall revelers. He told me that the moment he saw pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down, he booked off work, gathered up his two teenaged sons, and headed for East Berlin. “It is important for them to see history,” he said. “They will remember this for the rest of their life.”

A quarter of a century later, I would wager his prediction still holds.

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THE ZEN OF LONG-DISTANCE WALKING

tired pilgrim

Last month, I walked 335 kilometers in 16 days, covering a good chunk of the historic, pilgrims’ trail that winds through France and eventually all the way to Santiago de Compestella in Spain. Our party of four was booked into small hotels along the way. The deal also provided breakfast and dinner at these hotels, and transportation of our main luggage to the next day’s destination. Amazingly, I survived the marathon trek without blisters or serious aches and pains, beyond immense fatigue and extremely tired feet at the end of the day. Basically, I loved it. This coot is made for walking. For those thinking they might want to try something similar, I offer the following, aka “The Zen of Long-Distance Walking”:

  1. No gain without pain. No pain without gain.
  1. Always useful to remember: each step, no matter how painful, brings you one step closer to your destination, however distant. And a wonderful, hot shower.
  1. The ability of a wracked, tired body to heal overnight is a daily miracle.
  1. Make tracks in the fresh, glorious morning air, absolutely the best time to walk.
  1. Life on the road goes like this: 9 am to 1 pm, divine; 1 pm to 3 pm, tired but happy; 3 pm to 5 pm, who’s idea was this?
  1. The last few kilometres of any day’s walk are always toughest. Will we never get there?
  1. A path that goes down must eventually go up.
  1. Walking poles are recommended. They are certainly better than speeding Serbians.
  1. Bad jokes are not recommended.

10. Surface is everything. Pavement, rocks bad. Dirt, soft gravel good.

11. Short steps are better than long strides.

12. Whining, groaning, cursing availeth ye nought.

13. On a hot day, under a relentless sun, shade is priceless.

14. If the forest seems a little dark, it may mean you forgot to take off your sunglasses.

15. When going down a steep, treacherous slope, don’t look up.

16. Any glimpse of the charming, beautiful blue tit (chickadee) cheers the soul.

17. Walking reduces daily existence to its basics: rising at dawn, simple breakfast, walk, simple lunch, walk, shower, hot dinner, deep, blissful sleep.

18. Nunnery food is best avoided.

19. On the open road, being one with nature, one with the world, yields few deep thoughts. But small pleasures are myriad: the smell of a forest, the vivid greens of the rolling countryside, towering white clouds in a vast sky, sun-lit patches of moss covering ancient stone walls, the million-euro taste of local bread and cheese, and on and on.

20. When the walking is good, there’s no life like it. One is reminded of Scrooge on Christmas morning: “I don’t deserve to be so happy.”

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