2019 Christmas Letter

Dearest Family and Friends,

Here is my yearly “Christmas” letter. As I have mentioned in the past, it is a “highlights reel” of the year, which of course doesn’t mean everything was perfect. It is a reminder to me (that at the end of the day) there is more “good” than “bad.” This year, as I fell asleep at night, I tried to remember to list out the things I was grateful for. This is a habit I will continue because it has been a positive habit. In the overall scheme of life, I have no complaints. Well I do, but…

For my yearly “big” trip, I went to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I have been asked several times how I ended up in these countries, and the answer is, “I don’t know.” I literally booked the trip a week before I left. I spent three nights in Tallinn, Estonia; three nights in Riga, Latvia; and three nights in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was my first time to all three countries. If you want to read about my trip, here is the first entry.

Trip Highlights:

  • Learning the history of the three countries, which have all be invaded and occupied over the ages but are now independent.
  • I logged in many steps each day. Just walking around each city was a treat.
  • The image of Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral (Tallinn) will always remind me of this trip.
  • The Kalamaja area in Tallinn, which has a strong heartbeat. Old abandoned factories have been converted into shopping areas.
  • The sightseeing bus I took while transiting from Tallinn to Riga. I particularly liked Viljandi and Cesis, which were both very charming towns. I also enjoyed our walk through the national park.
  • The Central Market in Riga was amazing! The market is housed in WWI Zeppelin hangers and has outdoor stalls as well. It’s one of the largest markets in Europe.
  • I enjoyed the Miera Iela neighborhood of Riga. It’s a district that is popular with young, “hipster” crowds.
  • Walking around Riga was a treat because of all the Art Nouveau buildings.
  • Remembering the Orthodox father who gave me candy and a smile always makes me smile.
  • In Vilnius, I enjoyed all the high places to get great city views like Gediminas Hill, the Three Crosses and Subacius Observation Area.
  • The “Republic of Uzupis” was awesome!
  • One of my new favorite churches, Shrine of Divine Mercy, with its perfect spirit and altar that says “Jesu, in te confide,” which translates, “Jesus, I trust you.”
  • I am thankful for the people I met a long way. Leonard who I met while walking around Tallinn. Daumants the guide from my sightseeing bus from Tallinn to Riga. Tom a fellow American I met after visiting the new library in Riga. Chin Lin from Malaysia who I kept running into in Riga after taking the Tallinn to Riga tour bus together. The young woman from Toronto who I sat by on my Vilnius to Frankfurt flight.
  • I loved all of the churches, especially the Russian Orthodox churches.
  • Each of the cities have areas going through rebirth. The flip side is that it’s part of the gentrification of areas that is happening all over the world. People who have historically lived there are being pushed out.
  • I remain grateful for the gift of travel. It is a reminder that regardless of race, politics, religion, etc., most people pretty much want the same thing. I am also grateful of history that can teach us lessons if we listen.

 

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My only other trip this year was going to Mississippi over Labor Day weekend to visit family. We had a barbecue in honor of my mom.

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The fitness journey I began in January 2014 continues somewhat, though I did no races this year. I am over hills. LOL! I need to do a better job of hitting the gym and eating right in 2020.

It’s hard to believe my church newsletter is entering its 19th year! In spring 2020, we will publish the 75th issue.

I did not post that much this year. I need to do better in 2020!

A highlight for me in 2019 was when my job had an art exhibit, and I submitted pieces. It was so awesome to see my art displayed!

 

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This year, my dear friend Anh passed away. Anh was one of the first people I met at the port in 1996, 23 years ago, and she was my supervisor for my first two weeks there. We became friends. Then we discovered that we had the same birthday, and it was a wrap. We also shared the same birthday with a woman named Clara, and we did what we called a “fish dinner” every month for years. During that time, they both gave me advice about life, work and finances. Toward the end, are meetings became more like quarterly. Then, at the very end, not at all because Anh was in a nursing home. Once she finally let us see her at the nursing home, we let her know we were there until the end and tried to visit weekly. She passed away during my trip. My memories of her are filled with joy and love. She will be missed.

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I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and I wish you a Happy New Year!

love. hug. xoxo.

ltb

P.S. Goodbye to 2019 and this decade.

felicia

There and back again…an LTB journey

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

This morning, I got up at 3:45 a.m. to leave for the airport at 4:45. My flight from Vilnius to Frankfurt left at 6:45 (Flights always sound good when you are booking them but then comes the execution). The flight leaving was delayed 30 minutes because of fog in Frankfurt. I kept thinking, “Just let me make my connection.” But the flights were in the same terminal and the line for Customs was short. Then my flight from Frankfurt to Seattle left was supposed to leave at 10:35. We were delayed because they had to remove the bags of people who did miss the cutoff. I am not sure who they are but that has to suck! I arrived back home at 1:10. Cleared Customs and made my way home!

Thanks so much for following my adventure. I’m not sure what’s next on the travel plans, but I will cook something up! I already have tons of ideas. I do enjoy writing, and I will have my blog posts and travel pictures when I am old and grey remembering the adventures I had in my decadent youth.

Travel is such a beautiful gift. I am global; we are global. I think if more people traveled with an open-heart outside of their comfort zone, we would realize how a like we all are. Regardless of differences of race, religion, nationality and whatever other labels we place on ourselves and other people, we basically want the same thing. We experience the same struggles and heartaches. We experience loss. We experience joy and happiness.

The woman next to me on the flight between Vilnius and Frankfurt lives in Toronto, but she is from Lithuania. She has been in Toronto for 20 years (she left when she was 23). She married a man from the Philippines, and she said back then, it would have been hard on them had they stayed. She traveled home because her father has cancer, and they are getting his will and other end-of-life documents in order. She shared that she lost her mom last year, and I was like I lost mine last year too. Then we exchanged a look because despite not knowing each other, we both understand how that feels. And as humans, we have a lot of shared experiences.

No matter where I have been in the world, children have fallen out and had tantrums. People are out with their friends and family socializing. People are working to provide for their families. Children are unfiltered like the child on the plane who announced quite loudly that he, “Needed to make a poopy.”

I really hate the nationalist/isolationist rhetoric that is being sown worldwide. We are in this together. We can prosper together, or we can struggle together. It’s like the “trade war.” No side wins. Both suffer losses and casualties, and it’s all so unnecessary. This is where I would normally go off on my tangent about why international trade is good!

Now my mission is to do laundry from the trip. Go grocery shopping. Catch up on Greenleaf and Young Sheldon. BTW for those who have watched Greenleaf and Downton Abbey, is it me or are Charity and Lady Edith basically the same character? I need to vote and a much of “to dos” that should go relatively short if I focus. I also need to figure out why my pictures are not posting to my shared site. The photos are uploaded and ready to rock and roll.

Now back to regular programing.

Edits later.

Vilnius – act three

I spent the better part of today in the New Town.

I started off by walking down the length of Gedimino Prospektas. I cut over as things caught my eye like St. Phillip and St. Jacob. If I read correctly, the church has the oldest icon of Mary in Lithuania.

The Museum of Genocide Victims was closed. I would have had to gone Saturday. Saw the Parliament House. The Lithuanian National Drama Theater is undergoing renovations, so I was unable to see the Three Muses.

A little south of Gedimino is Vingis Park, which I walked through a little. I also went to the Romanov Church, which was known as the Orthodox Church of St. Michael and St. Constantine. It was built to mark 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. This was within four years of the dynasty ending. I also saw the Flower Market, which I could have missed but the guidebook mentioned it and it was close to the church. They did have tons of lovely roses. I also saw Kenessa, which is a traditional Karaite prayer house that was built in 1911.

I then went to the Snipiskes district, which is where Soviet concrete building blocks have been replaced with skyscrapers. The business district is called “Sunrise Valley.” I also saw St. Raphael’s Church.

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Then I did some wandering around the Old Town again.

I did a lot of walking. 33,381 steps according to my phone.

Edits when I get home!

Vilnius – act two

Today, I started off in the Cathedral Square again. I wanted to make sure I got a picture of the statue of Gediminas. It is built on an old pagan site. I also wanted to get a picture of the tile that has the word stebuklas, which means miracle. It marks the spot where the human chain formed between Tallinn and Vilnius ended. More than two million people formed the chain to protest the Soviet occupation. You are supposed to do a clockwise 360-degree turn on the tile.

I forgot to mention that last night I saw the Palace of the Grand Dukes. I passed it again on my way into the Old Town. The site has been settled on since at least 4th century AD.

Vilnius’ Old Town is Eastern Europe’s largest.

My first stop was St. Anne’s Church. This is the church I randomly went in to last night, but I left because they were having mass. Well it’s Sunday, so they were having mass again. I stayed for part of it. While I was there, the father came by with oil. He dipped a brush or something and went around waving it toward all of us as a blessing, I think? The church is late 15th-century Gothic and has 33 different kinds of bricks. Legion has it that Napoleon wanted to relocate the church to Paris because he was charmed by it. The church still has its original altar.

The next stop was Bernadine Church and Monastery. I was able to take communion there based on the timing of my arrival. The Bernadine monks have been in Vilnius since the 15th century when they established a wooden house of worship. Now its brick.

As I was walking, I heard someone say, “Hi.” I looked up, and it was the woman from Malaysia again! Like me, she arrived in Vilnius yesterday. She is going to Krakow, Poland, tomorrow. Her name is Chin Lin. It totally made my day.

One thing I noticed in all three countries is the number of people asking for alms outside of the church. A few times, I have seen them chased away by people from the church.

Then to the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel. It was built in the 17th century. Saw the Presidential Palace and parts of Vilnius University, which was founded in 1579.

Went to St. John’s Church, which is the first parish church in the city. Christianity was introduced to the city in 1387 and the church opened in 1426. Saw the nearby House of Signatories. Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence was signed there in 1918.

Then to what may now be my favorite church in the world. I love the Church of Our Lady in Bruges a lot too. This church is called Shrine of Divine Mercy. It doesn’t have much decoration, but what is there is so perfect. I found it to be peaceful. Above the altar it says, “Jesu, in te confido.” Which translates, “Jesus, I trust you.” Then there is artwork that says it in different languages. I arrived just as it was the “May God be with you,” part, which is my favorite part of the service.

Then to the Church of our Lady of the Assumption. Then to the Church of St. Nicholas, which is the city’s oldest church. It was built by German Christians in 1320. From 1901 to 1939, it was the only church in Lithuania that held mass.

Went in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. It was smoky. It was built in the 16th century then restored 300 years later. Went to Evangelical Lutheran Church. It dates back to 1555. Went to where the Great Synagogue of Vilnius was before it was destroyed. It was the largest synagogue in Eastern Europe.

Then to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Comforter and St. Casimir’s Church, which was closed. Passed by the Lithuanian National Philharmonic on my way to see Church of Holy Trinity, Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Church of Saint Teresa of Avila, Gates of Dawn and the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn. The Gates of Dawn is the southern border of the Old Town.

After that I saw two more churches, the Church of the Lord’s Ascension to Heaven and the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Both which are closed.

At some point, I also saw the Town Hall and the square. I also saw St. Catherine’s Church, which is now a musical venue. Went to the Church of Holy Spirit, which has green interior.

At some point, I realized I was walking up hill, and stopped by the Subacius Observation Area before walking down. I endued up in Uzupio, so I wandered around there again. I did some random walking through the Old Town on my way home.

 

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Basically, I spent a lot of times visiting tons of churches today, many of which were having service. There are a lot of churches in the Old Town. Even I was getting “churched out” toward the end!

I spent some time in the Bernardine Gardens yesterday. Quite lovely! I also saw the Cathedral of Theotkos, but I didn’t know what it was called until today. I saw it when I was leaving the Uzupio district.

Edits when I get home!

Vilnius – act one

One stage of your journey is over, another begins,” Gandalf the Grey.

Today, I departed Riga, Latvia, and took a bus to Vilnius, Lithuania.

I have to say that I loved the hotel I stayed at in Riga. It’s called Hotel Justus. Check out their webpage. The décor in my room and around the hotel are pieces I would love to have in my home.  It’s in a great location. It is minutes from the Riga Cathedral on the left and House of Blackheads on the right. Great filling breakfast. I was able to walk to the sites I wanted to get to. And the staff, one woman in particular, were very friendly and helpful. I meant to get her name, but when I got back my last night, she was gone.

I took a 9:30 bus and arrived at the Vilnius bus depot at 1:30ish.

Got to my hotel, checked in, dumped my stuff and headed out. Since I’ve been back at the hotel, I have organized my stuff.

My first stop was the Cathedral Square. It was the place of markets and fairs in the 19th century. I visited the Vilnius Cathedral. The spot of the church was, once upon a time, a site that was used to worship the thunder god. I saw the Cathedral Belfry and debated whether to walk up the tower. I decided not to.

Part of the reason is because I was going to go up Gediminas Hill, and I thought that would give a better view. I debated whether to take the funicular or walk. I decided to walk because it wasn’t that far up. This hill is where Vilnius was founded. The castle is up there. There have been buildings there since Neolithic times. The current castle dates back to the 15th century. Its walls were damaged but restored. It offered lovely views of the city and Old Town.

I was going to head to Old Town, but I saw a sign pointing to St. Peter and St. Paul Church. Let me say, “Amazing.” It has a baroque interior with 2,000 stuccoes created by Italian sculptors between 1675 and 1704. I am so amazed at all the detail. It’s a bit of walk, but definitely worth it. Since I was there, I continued on to Antakainis Cemetery. It’s supposed to be one of Europe’s most beautiful graveyards (not sure how that’s measured). There is a place where those killed by Soviet special forces January 19, 1991, are buried. There is a pieta of Madonna cradling Jesus there. I did enjoy my walk through it.

On a side note, when I lived in Northgate, I lived across from a cemetery. I used to walk in it all the time.

I then walked up to Three Crosses. They were first erected in the 17th century in memory of monks who were martyred by pagans three centuries earlier. The originals were bulldozed by the Soviets. Sigh.

I had seen a sign pointing to Uzupis, so I kept going. What a fun neighborhood. It’s called the “Republic of Uzupis.” Complete with own flags and president. There is a 41-point constitution engraved in many different languages outlining its citizens’ rights. Like hot water, to be unique, to be free, to be happy, etc. There is also the Uzupis Angel. It’s kind of old school Capitol Hill before gentrification meets Fremont.

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At that point, it was starting to get dark, and I wanted to make sure I could find my way back to the hotel. I will hit up Old Town in its fullest tomorrow.

Oh. Remember that Soviet style building I mentioned that reminded me of one I saw in Poland? Will apparently there is one more of them (I forget where). In Riga, the locals call it “Stalin’s wedding cake.”

I learned from Tom, that you can go to St. Petersburg from Helsinki for up to 72 hours without a visa. I need to do some research into that because that could be a future trip.

Tomorrow, Europe falls back. An extra hour of sleep. Hallelujah!

Edits when I get home.

Riga take two

My focus today was central Riga.

My first stop was the exquisite Nativity of Christ Cathedral. The church is a Byzantine-styled orthodox cathedral. It’s quite lovely. My senses were on overload taking in all the beautiful imagery and the magnificent dome. This time I asked about a scarf, but I was fine because I was wearing my hat. During the Soviet occupation, it was turned into a planetarium. Jeez.

My next move was walking about 20 minutes to get to Miera Iela. It’s a district that is popular with young, hipster crowds. The woman at the front desk was saying the country is very conservative, but the district is more alternative (my word choice). It’s an industrial district that is turning over though there is a chocolate maker up there. There are cafes, craft shops and bookstores. It had a nice vibe to it. I kept walking and saw two more orthodox churches and a cemetery.

Next stop was St. Gertrude Church, which has beautiful stain-glass windows. Its red-brick and Neo-Gothic. I learned today that Gertrude is the patron saint for travelers or those on the road. Once upon a time, the location was the edge of the city.

I tried to go to Jews in Latvia, but it was closed because it’s Friday. The place recounts the history of Jewish life until 1945. There are artifacts and photos.

Then off to the Quiet Center. Riga has 750 Art Nouveau buildings. In truth, the city is a museum because there are so many lovely buildings. My eyes were drawn to the soft pastels. There were some that were pointed out along Alberta Iela, so I went to check them out first. So much detail. The craftsmen who did the carvings were very skilled. I spent some time walking around the Art Nouveau District, focusing on streets off of Elizabetes Iela.

I saw the Corner House. This is a place where the Soviet secret police arrested, tortured and killed people. I wasn’t able to go inside, but it has an exhibit dedicated to the victims of the 1940-41 political repression.

I walked down the Esplanade, which is park. It was a lovely fall day, and I ended at the flower market (Vermanes Garden).

After a quick stop at the hotel, I crossed over the bridge to go to the Latvia National Library. It’s quite massive and there was an event going on, so it had a party vibe happening. The locals call the building the sandwich and don’t like it. The architect wanted to mimic the spires in the old town.

On the way home, I ran into a fellow American. His name is Tom, and he is from Ohio. He’s traveling for two months doing English as a second language as part of the trip. He’s done quite a bit of traveling, and I want to be him when I grow up. Always nice to see people who love to travel and keep doing so.

My phone says I walked 30,793 steps. That doesn’t seem right (seems high), but I’ll go with it.

Edits when I get home.

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Riga take one

I was able to get a lot accomplished today.

The first place I went was the Riga Cathedral. The church, which once Catholic but is now Lutheran, was founded in 1211 as the seat of the Riga diocese. It is the largest medieval church in the Baltic. The oldest portion of the church has Romanesque features; the tower is 18th century baroque and the rest, dating back to the 15th century, is Gothic. During Soviet times, services were not allowed.

I went into Our Ladies of Sorrow Church and saw St. Savior’s Church. I would also go into St. Mary Magdalene’s Church later.

The next stop was Three Brothers, which are three old stone homes. One is 600 years old and the oldest dwelling in town. The other two are 17th century. Then to St. James Cathedral, which was built in 1225. The church has switched between Catholic and Protestant. It is currently a Catholic Church. Then to see the Riga Castle, which is the official residence of the president.

From here, I took the Torna Iela to see the Swedish Gate, which were medieval walls built in 1698 by the Swedes. It is the largest surviving section of the town wall. Saw the Latvian War Museum, Jacob’s Barracks, which is the longest building in Old Riga, and the Power Tower, which dates back to the 14th century. It’s the only of the 18 original towers that survived.

I then did a quick beeline to Central Riga and walked along the city canal. There is a nice park around it. I went up Bastion Hill and went to the Freedom Monument. The Freedom Monument was off limits during Soviet occupation. Placing flowers on it was a crime with the punishment of being sent to Siberia. It is around this time I ran into the Malaysian woman from my bus tour here, and I laughed because I bemoaned yesterday how I would never see any of them again. I saw the National Opera.

I went back into the Old Town and saw St. Peter’s Church. It is thought to be 800 years old, thus one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltic. Then saw St. John’s Church, which is a mixture of 13th to 19th century Gothic and baroque styles.

This is when I did a beeline and saw somethings I meant to see tomorrow. I saw the Central Market, and so I went there. It is wonderful! The market is housed in a series of five WWI Zeppelin hangers and has outdoor markets as well. You name it, it’s there. I read that it has space for 1,000 sellers. It’s one of the largest markets in Europe.

I explored the Maskava Forstate, which is Riga’s “Moscow Suburb.” It was once the site of the Jewish ghetto when the Nazi’s occupied Latvia. There are parts that are still in recovery.

I saw a building I walked to because it reminded me of a very Russian like building I saw in Poland. There is an orthodox church near it that I went to. It was magnificent. It was adorned to the highest degree. When I first walked in, the father gave me a second look and walked out. I looked around and then went to buy a candle to pray for my sister/friend’s aunt who lost her husband. While I was in line, the father came up to me with a big smile. Gave me a piece of candy and shook my hand. It made me smile. It was only after I was leaving the church that I saw a sign asking women to borrow a scarf from the church when they entered. I felt bad because I feel it’s so important to respect sacred spaces in the manner of their beliefs. I know to cover my hair in a mosque and to take off my shoes (and leave them outside) before going into a Hindu Temple.

I then went to the Riga Ghetto & Latvia Holocaust Museum. There are some moving pieces. I think it’s always so powerful when faces and stories are connected. The people who were murdered in the Holocaust are not nameless. They have stories and histories that were wiped out too soon because of hate and supremacy. I also went to a Holocaust Memorial near there. It’s the site where a large synagogue was burned to the ground during WWII. The congregation was trapped inside the church when it happened. None survived. What do you do with such senseless hate?

Then I saw the Jezus Baznica (Jesus Evangelical Lutheran). It took me a minute to find it even though it was right in my face. It said it was a church made up entirely of wood, so I assumed it would be brown. It was grey and soft blue.

Next I went to Spikeri. It is an area of brick warehouses, which used to be filled with slabs of hanger meat. The warehouses are now being converted into stores and companies. It made me think of gentrification, which can be good if you take areas that were not developed and repurpose buildings that are falling down. The other side is when people who historically lived in the neighborhood are forced out because they can no longer afford to live there. It’s happening all over the world, including my neighborhood at home, and is unfortunate.

Then back to the Old Town. I went to the Cat House. I wanted to see it because of the backstory. “What had happened was” according to legend, a man was rejected from the Great Guild. For revenge, he turned the cats’ butts toward the hall. Of course, the guild was outraged. There was a court battle and the merchant was let in the club, but he had to turn the cats in the other direction. High drama!

I saw the Mentzendorff’s House, which was built in 1695 as the home of a German glazier.

I went to the Riga Synagogue. It was built in 1905. It only survived because setting it on fire would have put other buildings at risk. After the Soviet occupation ended, it was reopened for service. Then in 1995 and 1998, there were bomb attacks by neo-Nazis. In 2009, it was restored with funds from the EU.

Finally, to Ratslaukums where I saw the Blackheads House, which was originally called the New House. The house was for unmarried German merchants. It was built in 1344 but decimated in 1941 and flattened seven years later. It was rebuilt in 2001 based on the original blueprints. Saw the Town Hall. The original was destroyed during WWII. It was rebuilt in 2003. Lastly saw the Latvian Riflemen Monument. It’s controversial because it honors Latvia’s Riflemen, who were the core of the Red Army in 1918. Some served as Lenin’s personal guards.

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Today has been the warmest day. No hat and scarf needed for me. It’s supposed to be 60 tomorrow. Late next week, snow is in the forecast.

Today’s step count equals 24,738 for 9.2 miles.

I will edit when I get home.