The Prodigal Son

One of my all-time favorite books is The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J. Nouwen. As such, one of the highlights of our visit to St. Petersburg was seeing the Rembrandt painting that inspired the book. It is housed in The State Hermitage Museum.

It was another one of those moments I almost curled up in a corner and cried, so overwhelmed was I to be seeing the painting.

Here’s the description of the painting from the museum website.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. 1606-1669

Return of the Prodigal Son

Holland, Circa 1668

In the Gospel According to Luke (15: 11-32), Christ relates the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks his father for his inheritance and leaves the parental home, only to fritter away all his wealth. Arriving at last at sickness and poverty, he returns to his father’s house. The old man is blinded by tears as he forgives his son, just as God forgives all those who repent. This whole work is dominated by the idea of the victory of love, goodness and charity. The event is treated as the highest act of human wisdom and spiritual nobility, and it takes place in absolute silence and stillness. The drama and depth of feeling are expressed in the figures of both father and son, with all the emotional precision with which Rembrandt was endowed. The broad, sketchy brushstrokes of the artist’s late style accentuate the emotion and intensity of this masterly painting. This parable in Rembrandt’s treatment is addressed to the heart of everyone: “We should be glad: for this son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”


St. Petersburg

Because I have long been a Russian history buff, our 2-day port of call in St. Petersburg, Russia was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. My fascination with Russian history began in high school when I read the book Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family), the story of the last Czar and his family, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family)

The first stop on our tour of the city was the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inside the Fortress of Peter and Paul.

The Cathedral is where all of the Czars are buried, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were interred in a side chapel of the cathedral.

I’ll be honest and say that I was so moved at the chance to be there and see these graves that I almost curled up in a corner and cried.


In preparation for our visit to St. Petersburg, I read the book St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva It helped put into context what we were seeing.

St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva

Now I’m reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (author of Nicholas and Alexandra).

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman


Estonia Did Not Disappoint

Even though our Baltic Cruise came to an end (sniff, sniff) less than 2 weeks ago, I still have some things to say about the places we visited.

After leaving Germany, we sailed north to the city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Like every other destination on this cruise, it was a city that I’ve always wanted to visit. It is small enough that we were able to get off our ship and explore the medieval city on our own for the day.

It did not disappoint. Here are a few pics.

As we disembarked, there was a sign on the dock welcoming us to Estonia, and telling us a bit about the country. For some reason, the Tourism Board thought this was an important thing for us to know.

More than half of the city’s 13th century city wall remains in tact. In a park near the wall there are three  rather creepy statues of faceless monks. According to this blogger, they are statues of Danish monks who, during a battle, prayed for victory on behalf of the Danish king.

The old city sits on the side of a hill, the top of which has this fantastic view.

It’s definitely a city I want to visit again.



The Last Victim

Even though Berlin is nowhere near the north coast of Germany, it was the first city in our cruise itinerary. Our day “in port” involved a 3-hour bus ride from Warnemunde, where our ship actually docked, to Berlin, taking a 5-hour walking tour, followed by a 3 hour bus ride back to the ship.

For this Cold War history buff, being in Berlin was, even if just for a few hours, a dream come true. We saw, or glimpsed from the bus window, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the 1936 Olympic Stadium (whose bell I wrote about in my book), Checkpoint Charlie, and the remnants of the Berlin Wall.

One of the most moving spots was a fence near the site of the Berlin Wall that commemorates those killed trying to escape over the wall. The last victim was killed in May of 1989, only 6 months before the wall collapsed.

An excellent book about how the wall came down is The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte.

Babette’s Feast

Perhaps you remember the classic Danish film, Babette’s Feast. It was set on the cold, wet coast of Denmark in the 1800s. A French cook comes to be a servant in the house of an austere Lutheran minister and his family.

For dinner in Copenhagen on Sunday night we signed up with a program called “Meet the Danes,” which offers tourists a chance for a home-cooked meal with a a local. In our case it was a man who cooked us up a meal he said his grandmother would have made.

We ate straight from 6:30 to 10:00PM!

Our very own Babette’s feast!


Where Everyone Looks Familiar

This week I have I am cruising the Baltic Sea with my friend and former colleague, the indomitable Amy Young (and a few others). We set sail on Monday from Copenhagen, Denmark, after meeting up in baggage claim at the airport and then exploring the city for the weekend.

Copenhagen is a beautiful city with historic architecture, charming sidewalk cafes and bikes. Lots of bikes—so many bikes that we almost thought we were back in Beijing!

One of the most interesting observations: everyone looked vaguely familiar.

Then it hit me:  when you’re from Minnesota, everyonein Denmark looks familiar.

I’m anticipating that will be the case in Finland and Sweden as well!


The Berlin Wall

This morning I ran across this interesting article about a previously undiscovered section of the Berlin Wall that was recently found by locals out on a walking tour.

Here’s how CNN reported it:

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. But it seems that its story still hasn’t been fully told.
A previously unknown section of the wall was discovered in summer 2018 in a residential section of northwest Berlin.
Several locals on a walking tour came upon a 20-meter (66-foot) section of crumbling wall, covered in graffiti, in June. The wall had been covered by overgrown bushes, which is how it had escaped discovery for so long.
This week marks the anniversary of the start of construction on the wall in 1961. A few years back I read a fascinating account of the events that led up it in a book titled Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Frederick Kempe. Here’s part of the description from Amazon:

Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War-and more perilous. It was in that hot summer that the Berlin Wall was constructed, which would divide the world for another twenty-eight years. Then two months later, and for the first time in history, American and Soviet fighting men and tanks stood arrayed against each other, only yards apart. One mistake, one nervous soldier, one overzealous commander-and the tripwire would be sprung for a war that could go nuclear in a heartbeat.

On one side was a young, untested U.S. president still reeling from the Bay of Pigs disaster and a humiliating summit meeting that left him grasping for ways to respond. It would add up to be one of the worst first-year foreign policy performances of any modern president. On the other side, a Soviet premier hemmed in by the Chinese, East Germans, and hardliners in his own government. With an all-important Party Congress approaching, he knew Berlin meant the difference not only for the Kremlin’s hold on its empire-but for his own hold on the Kremlin.

Neither man really understood the other, both tried cynically to manipulate events. And so, week by week, they crept closer to the brink.

Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth

It’s a fascinating read.

In all my travels I never made it behind The Iron Curtain, so I never saw the Berlin Wall. However, while on a visit to Iceland a few years back, I did see a piece of it standing outside the historic Hofdi House in Reykjavik. Hofdi House is where President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Michael Gorbachev held a summit in 1986 that set the stage for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. To commemorate that summit and what it led to, a piece of the wall stands on the grounds of the House.

By the way, an excellent book about the summit, written by one of Reagan’s aides is Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War, by Kenneth Adelman.

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A Rocky Mountain Fourth

One of the traditions at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park Colorado is a Fourth of July Parade. Participants in the parade are campers, visitors, and various staff departments of the Camp and Conference Center.

I absolutely love this slice of American life — people organizing themselves to dress up in silly costumes and do silly things for no other reason than to have a good time while celebrating the birthday of our nation.

A good time was had by all!

Here are a few pics of the parade. Quite the setting, eh?

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