Catching up with 2016

My apologies for not attending to my blog last year.  I know some of you count on me for your vicarious travel thrills and I let you down.  I recently started this year’s three month adventure and I haven’t written about last year yet!  Here’s the recap:   I made four big, semi-exotic trips last year and several other fun, less ambitious ones.

May 2016 saw me on an eight-day river and camping trip through the spectacular Grand Canyon.  I am indebted to my niece, Denise, who was the initiator of the trip.  Joining us were my children, Dane and Bryn, sister Barb, brother Mike and his wife Linda, my partner John and Denise’s friend Jan.  Two boats travelled together down the Colorado River, with a total of 28 passengers and three boatmen.   We camped along the way, traveling 270 miles, and enjoyed every minute. It was my first experience of sleeping outside without a tent and the star-filled sky was so incredible, I found it hard to close my eyes at night and sleep.

In June my man-friend John and I returned to my beloved Svanholm for two months of life in the country.

In addition to the refreshing and life-affirming time with my Danish friends and colleagues, we took a one week holiday to Lithuania, visiting both the capital Vilnius, where John has friends who studied in Norway with him the summer of 2015, and the tiny coastal resort town of NIda, where the German author Thomas Mann built a summer house.

Shortly after we returned to Minnesota in August, we boarded the Empire Builder train in Saint Paul, bound for Seattle.  We stopped for two nights and beautiful hikes in Glacier National Park on our way west and then hopped on board the m.s.Maasdam for a two week cruise to Alaska with Garrison Keillor and a ship full of musicians.  Talk about sensory overload!  Days in port were filled with hiking, kayaking, and exploring nature.  Evenings and days at sea were a challenge with amazing musicians performing on multiple stages…not to mention naturalists on deck spotting whales, seals, otters, etc. and dance instructors offering fun lessons.  What is a person to do?  Stay up late, get up early and be exhausted trying to take it all in, that’s what.  I loved it.

In November, after celebrating Thanksgiving in southern California with my kids at my late husband Mark’s step-sister Jan’s home, Bryn and I flew to Havana for a week, via Mexico City so that I could visit my dear friend Martha on our return trip.  Our timing was unique, arriving the day that Fidel died and the country’s mourning for their leader seemed very sincere.  We were charmed by the retro cars and the active street life.  In Mexico City I stupidly left my backpack in our Uber car, losing both passports and my tablet.  Many hours at the American Embassy the following day earned me an emergency passport and we made our plane home without a hitch.

Other travels took me to California to visit my kids, Michigan to visit my sister, Arizona to visit my brother John and his wife Judy, Ohio to celebrate my brother Mike’s 50th wedding anniversary with Linda, Missouri to visit old high school chums, and Door County, Wisconsin to open and close up my partner John’s family cottages.

 

It was a busy year…now maybe you will forgive me for not writing sooner.

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My Room

I have had a couple of questions about my accommodations this year at Svanholm.  The room I lovingly occupied on my last two visits is now inhabited full-time by a new community member.  She is a welcome addition to the community and I don’t begrudge her my former space, which she has appointed nicely.

This year, while still living in the manor house, instead of going up some stairs to get to my room, I go down a few to join the other guest volunteers in a community living situation.   I have lived in “Syderen”, as it is called, briefly twice before, so it is not unfamiliar to me.

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Going through the entry and around a corner, one comes to a long hallway.  There are guest rooms to the right along the hallway…mine is down at the end around another corner.

20150712_130942On the way to my room one passes the communal kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room.

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The kitchen is more than our kitchen, though, it is also our dining room (for breakfasts, Wednesday night home cooking, and weekend lunches), our lounge, and our study: a true multi-purpose room (and it is where the internet signal is most reliable). Tradition has it that guests leave messages on the walls (and now the ceiling) with impressions of their experience here.

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Past the kitchen, if one looks out a window to the right, one has a view across the courtyard to the stairs that lead to my former living room.

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Ta-dah!  Cozy, no?  It is actually quite spacious, with place enough for me to exercise using my big ball and room to store my things.  If you look closely,  you will see some precious items that waited in storage for me this past year and help to make it feel more like my space.

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Oh, and I almost forgot…the view from my window:

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Back at (my second) home

As I predicted in my holiday posting, I returned to Svanholm in time to celebrate Sankt Hans and the summer solstice.  This year’s sojourn at my home away from home will run until the end of August, when my sister-in-law will join me for a couple of months of travel in Germany, Italy and Spain.

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I will be gone from Saint Paul for a mere four months, but as I crossed my threshold at the Great Northern Lofts and turned out the lights on June 16th, it felt like it was going to be a long time before I would pass that way again.  Intellectually I know that four months disappears in an instant, but emotionally I feel a stronger tug this time.  What is the anchor pulling on my heart?  It is clear that over the past seven or eight months that I have been home in Saint Paul my friendships within the Great Northern Lofts have deepened.  I will miss our Chocolate Thursdays, our sibling dinners, our book club discussions, and our third Friday social hour.  I will also miss ushering at the Fitzgerald Theater, where I have been privileged to experience a wide variety of entertainment, from Prairie Home Companion to Kerri Miller interviewing author Erik Larson to the Wits comedy program.

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I note another difference this time around…I am in a relationship with a man I met online.  After a couple of false starts with others, I have been dating John since January and we are a good match.  Not only does he like museums and theater as I do, but he also loves languages and staying fit.  Fluent in German, he often speaks and writes to me in that language, forcing me to exercise that part of my brain.  And he is currently in Norway, taking a six-week language course at the University of Oslo.  We will meet up in Norway at the end of July and travel back to Denmark so that he can experience a week of life on the farm before returning to Minnesota.

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It has dawned on me that there is something else drawing on my heartstrings and making me a bit more reluctant to stay abroad so long this year: BOTH children are on the other side of the Atlantic from me!  One of the special things about my Danish experience in previous years has been the proximity to my daughter and while I won’t for a moment lament her return to the States, I will miss her presence this time around.  By the by, I traveled to Los Angeles twice this winter in order to spend some time with both Bryn and Dane.  It was an added treat to stay with my friend Mark and meet Brian, Bryn’s love interest.

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My friend Mark, me, Dane, Bryn, and Brian enjoying some craft beer.

Well, I arrived at Svanholm after Cows’ Day and it nearly killed me to miss the event this April, I do love it so. But my sister had waited patiently for two years for me to stay home and partake with her in the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. I have to admit that while it was no Cows’s Day, the tour was fabulous. Over the course of Mother’s Day weekend, Barb, her fellow Michigan potter friend Joan, and I visited all seven studios and enjoyed the work of 53 varied artists. Here you can see us with our loot.

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After a week and two days at Svanholm, I can report that all is well with my world. It has been marvelous to reconnect with friends here and return to volunteering in the big kitchen.  It is almost as though I never left, although it has been nearly a year since I was here last.  The passage of time is easily seen in the growth and maturation of the children, who are as precious (and precocious) as ever.  There have been a couple of physical changes, the addition of a giant chess board in honor of a member’s 70th birthday, and the addition of chickens complete with a hen house, for example, but the vibe remains unchanged.

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2014 Holiday Blog

December 2014 finds me in Saint Paul, enjoying the company of my neighbors in the Great Northern Lofts. While I posted briefly from Svanholm and wrote about hosting my Japanese friend Chika over the summer, and our subsequent trip together to Japan and South Korea, I feel like Svanholm deserves more coverage.

Cows’ Day fell on April 21st this year. As I explained last year, Cows’ Day is the day when all the organic farms in Denmark let their cows out from the barns to the fields for the first time in the spring. The normally slow-moving cows are so excited to go outside, that they stampede out of the barn, run into the field and “dance”. It is quite a sight. So much so that thousands of people come from Copenhagen to watch and Svanholm sells various foods and drinks in order to make some money that day. I was asked to run “Katy’s Coffee Shop” in the old boutique space, so I recruited my daughter and seven current and former guest volunteers to staff it with me for the four hours we were expected to be open. Last year about 5,000 visitors came out for the event, so imagine our surprise when 10,000 showed up this year! My front line staff dealt with the customers while I spent four hours frantically brewing one pot of coffee after the other to try and keep up with demand.

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This year was especially fun in that I had several visitors over the course of my four-month stay. As always, it was a treat to have my daughter come from Copenhagen for visits and my wild and crazy Swedish friends also came to stir things up. In addition, my cousin Henry and his wife Robyn from the Bay Area stopped by and my friends Tal from Minnesota and Mark from L.A. stayed a little longer. Tal and I ventured over to Malmö so that he could add Sweden to his list of countries visited.

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My friend Mark arrived in time to help out with the sheep shearing and stayed for about ten days, so we went to some places I had never been before, including Bakken, which bills itself as the world’s oldest amusement park. We tried out the wooden roller coaster, which we were assured has been rebuilt since it was first constructed.

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If anyone is wondering about whether I ended up running in the Copenhagen Marathon…I didn’t. A two month training schedule is aggressive at any age and at 58 I should have known better. I developed a painful case of planter fasciitis, hitch hiking back to the farm when I finally gave in. The joy that came from the experience, though, was that my loaner bike took me on some great explorations in the countryside. I covered some beautiful territory, inhaling the fragrance of blooming rape seed. I stayed at Svanholm through mid-summer’s and the summer solstice celebration, flying home with Chika on June 30th.

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I returned to Minnesota in time to enjoy my niece Kirstine’s wedding at the beginning of July. Both of my children came back to attend the festivities which took place in my sister-in-law’s back yard. After a torrential downpour things proceeded smoothly and a good time was had by all.

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November included a week-long trip to visit my sister Barb in Michigan to enjoy her Potters’ Guild annual fall sale. Barb has been making beautiful functional pottery for years. I am grateful for and proud to use the plates, bowls and mugs she has given me. This year she started experimenting with ceramic reliefs. She had a lot of adorable chickens at the sale and one really cute giraffe with leg warmers.

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November and Thanksgiving also presented the excuse to head to Cincinnati for a week to catch up with my brother Mike, et.al. My son Dane joined me there and Barb drove down on Friday to spend the weekend, so all was good.

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Since this posting ostensively takes the place of a holiday newsletter, a brief update on my kids is in order: Dane is doing well, still working for Broadcom and living in Orange County, California. In addition to seeing him at the wedding in July and over Thanksgiving, I was happy to visit with him both coming and going from Japan. He continues to practice various martial arts and is still committed to creative writing when he can tear himself away from Netflix. I am counting down the days until he arrives for the Christmas holidays.

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Bryn finished her master’s in Technological and Socio-Economic Planning in mid-August and left Denmark in mid-September. She is moving to the Los Angeles area in mid-January, but is currently enjoying a stopover in Vietnam where her love interest has been residing. Brian is an old friend from Swarthmore, originally from L.A., and he is looking forward to making the move back with her. It will be terrific to have her on this continent again!

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Some have asked if having both children in southern California means I will be moving there. Others have asked if no longer having a daughter in Denmark means that I won’t be returning to Svanholm. No on both counts. I love both my homes (the condo in Saint Paul and whatever room I get assigned at Svanholm) and feel lucky to be part of two special communities. My current plan is to enjoy the Twin Cities through the winter and spring and return to Svanholm by the summer solstice in June. I will likely be there through the end of August, in case anyone wants to visit this year.

Happy holidays, everyone. Please stay in touch.

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Detour to Korea

My Japanese friend Chika and I took a break from our tour of Japan to spend a week visiting friends in South Korea. I already sensed on the first day that one week would not be long enough. Oh well, I guess I will need to come back.

We flew on Peach Airlines from Osaka to Incheon airport, outside of Seoul. We had good instructions from our friend Taehyoung about which train to take to which station, so after retrieving my suitcase, hitting up an ATM for cash, renting a wifi “egg” for the week, picking up maps, and buying and loading our transit cards, we were on our way!

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We were immediately impressed by how friendly Koreans are. On our ride into Seoul, we were chatted up by a 71-year-old retired electrical engineer who worked in Montevideo, Minnesota (!) and nows travels with his wife back and forth between the U.S. and Korea, visiting family on both continents. As I wondered aloud whether the river we were passing over was fresh or salt water, the woman next to me explained Seoul’s geography. Her English was as fluent as the engineer’s; it turns out she has been living in London and is engaged to someone there.

With instant messages back and forth to Taehyoung, who was three hours away in the countryside, we arrived successfully at Hongik University station and met his friend Kwangdae who led us back to yet another friend’s vacant apartment (well, vacant except for five cats). The cats’ owner was travelling and we were welcome to stay there. Such kindness. Kwangdae fed us and then took us on a lovely walk along the Hangang River and through a lively market area before returning with us via bus back to the apartment.

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Taehyoung arrived the next day and the three of us met up with our mutual friend Jurgen. We attempted some sight-seeing, but it was raining pretty hard. Our walk took us past the American Embassy and Gwanghwamun Square, where families of passengers killed aboard the Sewol ferry in April are conducting a hunger strike. A volunteer explained that they are asking for a transparent investigation into the tragedy, with criminal consequences for those found at fault.

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We waited out the rain at a Starbucks (they are plentiful here), then resumed our tour past the Gyeonbokgung Palace and over to Insa-dong Street, which is a prime shopping and eating area. Jurgen had already treated us to lunch and coffee, then Taehyoung treated us to dinner at a cozy, back alley establishment where he had once worked and that we would never have found on our own.

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Our experience in the bustle of Seoul was a sharp contrast to the calmness we encountered the following day when we travelled with Taehyoung to the countryside. Taehyoung works for the National Trust of Korea at a site on the Dong River that was slated to be dammed up and flooded. The Trust now owns the property and is preserving its natural beauty.

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There are many farms in the valley, growing apples, ginseng, red hot peppers, edamame beans and peanuts.

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There were the beginning signs of autumn.

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Our friend Jin arrived on the weekend from Seoul with her boyfriend Jiho and his dog Genie. They cooked us an amazing fish dinner and drove us back to Seoul the following day. For those readers unfamiliar with Korean food, I will give you two words: spicy and delicious. There is good reason that the valley is filled with fields of chili peppers.

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Our drive back to Seoul took us past some spectacular scenery. As is true of Japan, Korea is a country of mountains. Such awesome beauty.

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When I ask my fellow Svanholm guest friends whether they find the Danish landscape boring, since that country is so flat and theirs is so mountainous, they uniformly surprise me by replying that to the contrary, they find the wide open vistas exciting. They like being able to see far off to the horizon. I agree that Denmark is beautiful; I am just surprised that they think so.

Our final day in Seoul was devoted to shopping. Jin was nice enough to meet us and take us through both the Gwangang Market, an old market area filled with stalls selling traditional Korean wear, fabrics, bedding, and street food, and the area around the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, an ultra-modern facility that looks like a cross between a space ship and the Goodyear blimp.

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For my transit-oriented friends, I can report that Seoul’s metro system is very efficient and well marked in both Korean and English. And in spite of the fact that it was Japan’s subway system that was the site of a deadly sarin attack in 1995, every station in Seoul is equiped for such a potentiality.

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It has been a very rewarding detour, I am glad that we came. I love reconnecting with friends and I return to Japan impressed by Korea’s landscape and the kindness of its citizens.

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On the Road Again: Japan

I was reminded by a friend lately that not everyone is on Facebook, so quite a few people are in the dark about my latest adventure. Apologies.

I left Svanholm at the end of June after a fulfilling four-month stay, volunteering once again in the kitchen and feeling embraced by the community. How I wish I could be in two places at once. I so love Svanholm and also love my life in Saint Paul.

The feeling of over-consumption upon my return was moderated this time by the fact that I was joined by my Japanese friend Chika. And, in fact, my daughter Bryn, Chika and I all arrived on the same day and my son arrived on the following one. The kids were home for their cousin Kirstine’s wedding and spent a week and a half welcoming me home. Four people in my condo was cozy and I loved it.

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Chika and I settled into somewhat of a rountine over the next 6 or 7 weeks. We found a free English class for her, which met from 10 – 12:30, Monday – Thursday. I would get up and go exercise, and she would generally be headed out the door or gone by the time I got back. When she returned we would have lunch and work our way through the list of attractions I had put together. We also spent a couple of days in Duluth, a couple more in a cabin near Ely, and a couple at my friend Beth’s cabin near Cold Spring. All in all, it was a good Minneosta summer.

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Cabin 26 at Camp Van Vac near Ely

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After the State Fair at the end of August, we packed our bags and flew to San Francisco. We enjoyed the hospitality of my cousin and friends up and down the coast, renting a car and staying in Alameda, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Carlsbad. Here we are in Disneyland, meeting Mickey Mouse with my son Dane and my friend Mark.

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On September 9th we boarded a Singapore Airlines flight bound for Narita, Japan!

Chika has taken extremely good care of me in Japan. I simply follow her around and enjoy myself. No worries about which train or how to buy a ticket or what food to eat. I feel very fortunate. Fortunate also to be visiting other friends that we both made during our stays at Svanholm. It is very special to reconnect and cement these relationships instead of allowing them to fade.

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Because of our rigorous travel schedule, lack of internet connectivity, and placing a priority on socializing over posting, I have been quickly uploading photos to Facebook when I have had a chance. A Journeywoman blog posting takes a little more time and though, hence my silence. I am currently taking advantage of a train ride to do some writing, but am not quite sure when I will be able to upload it, or if I will have time to add photos (they are the best part, I know).

Some thoughts and observations about Japanese culture while I am underway:

1) There is a strong food culture here. Every town and region has a dish or two or three for which it is known and when the Japanese travel they like to make sure to sample these local foods. In spite of Philly cheesesteak, Chicago style pizza, and San Francisco sour dough bread, the United States does not have a highly developed food culture.

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2) The train network is incredible: multiple train companies provide service that reaches far and wide. And what is even more incredible is that the trains run on time. There are trains leaving every few minutes on multiple tracks, on time and full. Which gets me to my next point.

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3) It is crowded here. Population density leads not only to efficient transit options, but also generally smaller houses and apartments as well as busy sidewalks and highways. It is noisy, too. There are recorded voices at the train stations, in department stores (“The escalators can be crowded. Stand two abreast. Parents hold onto your children. Do not walk on the escalator. “), even on public streets (e.g. announcing festval events and times).

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4) The Japanese have an affinity for cartoon characters. They are EVERYWHERE. Each town has its own chacter mascot, most museums and tourist attractions have them, too. They appear on buttons, cookies, zipper pulls, towels, socks, you name it. Which leads me to my next point

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5) The Japanese may be even bigger consumers than Americans. There certainly are more shops, more vending machines, and more opportunities to shop than I am used to. There are shops surrounding most temples and the train stations are packed with retailers. In fact, many train stations are fully incorparated into large shopping malls.

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6) The Japanese are warm, friendly and generous. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness I have been shown by my Japanese friends and their families and I hope that I can return the hospitality in the future.

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Back at Svanholm

March 16, 2014. I am writing this post on the fifth anniversary of the death of my husband and soulmate, Mark Lindblad. So much has happened since his passing that five years seems like a long time. However, he is still so present with me, that it seems like just yesterday that he was smiling in my direction. Odd how time can seem eternal and instaneous at once.

Last year on this day I remember it was cold and snow was still on the ground here at Svanholm. My neighbor Elisabeth could sense that I was a bit blue and we went for a chilly walk through the forest to the highest point in the area. The wind was blowing and we talked about the losses we both mourned. In contrast, this winter has been the mildest Denmark has seen in a long while and when I visited the same spot last weekend, it provided quite a different view.

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I also noticed evidence of the huge storm that hit the area in December with hurricane force winds. Many trees fell in that storm and it was obvious that workers have busy cleaning up in the intervening months.

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I have been back at Svanholm for two weeks now. While I didn’t like leaving my Minnesota friends and neighbors behind, it was a treat to leave one of the coldest winters on record and step into spring.

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It has been wonderful to be back with my Svanholm friends. I have the same room and neighbors as I had before and everything is quite cozy.

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Life in the big kitchen is calmer than when I left last August, as the team is finally adequately staffed. In fact, it looks as though I will have time to regularly make cheese once a week. Tuesdays have become my cheese day and I have already made a batch of feta and a batch of dill havarti, both of which have the advantage that they can be eaten fresh and don’t require a lot of aging.

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Life here is much the same, that is the beauty of this place. Last weekend I got reacquainted with the sheep, as it was moving day for them. They needed to be escorted from the field where they spent the winter to the lambing area. Uffe’s new sheep dog handled himself quite well and it was a relatively quick and easy experience. A few of us waited next to the road the sheep needed to cross in order to stop traffic, while Uffe, a Swedish guest, and Uffe’s dog Liam went to fetch them.

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Here you can see the sheep crossing the road. In the photo below you will see one of the two “accidental” lambs that were born earlier than intended. They kept up well with the rest of the flock.

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We had an unanticipated encounter with some farm machinery, but all went well.

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Uffe and Liam celebrated their success once the sheep were safely in their new field. The next move will be trickier because there will be a lot of confused little lambs by then.

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After we were done with the sheep, I went by to say hello to the goats. Unbelievably, I have yet to go visit the cows! Quite ungrateful of me, considering how much I enjoy working with their wonderful milk.

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There isn’t much else to report from here. I got to spend a fun weekend with Bryn in Copenhagen right when I arrived from Minnesota, before coming out to the farm. I experienced several very cool events, including “Science and Cocktails”, sponsored by physics students (the topic was cannabis), Friday Bar at the Hub (a shared work space for social responsibility and sustainability entrepreneurs), a feminist folk kitchen dinner, a saunagus session (a saunagus master guides you through four sessions in the sauna with various essential oils on the rocks interspersed with dunkings in ice cold water), and a trip to the Louisiana Art Museum with my two good friends Lise and Birthe.

I am also toying with the idea of running the Copenhagen marathon on May 18th. There is a Japanese guest here who is planning to run in it which is what has inspired me. I remember being in Copenhagen last year on the day it took place and feeling a pang of regret.

It was 1984, 30 years ago, that I ran my first of 11 marathons. I was 28, married, but no kids yet. So today I ran 11 miles to see how it would feel (hard, but doable) and have put together a training schedule that I think would get me across the finish line. I will see how it goes over the next month and if I don’t injure myself with the training, I think I’ll do it! Mark would tell me to go for it, I am sure.

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Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

As promised in my holiday blog posting, I return to a recounting of highlights from my summer travels. Sitting with my tablet on a frigid January Monday in Minnesota, it takes effort to recall the incredible heat of southeast Asia. In Vietnam in July, one showers and five minutes later is drenched in sweat once again. Unless located directly under a fan or in air conditioning, one sweats just sitting still. Imagine being a tourist and walking around to take in the attractions. Towards the end of the trip, I had an umbrella in one hand to shield me from the sun and a fan in the other to help evaporate my perspiration.

This tale is from early in the trip, however, before I had learned that cooling technique. Bryn and I had arranged that after visiting Sapa, we would return to Hanoi only long enough to join another excursion: this time to Ha Long Bay. As an aside, we used Vega Travel for both of our excursions and found them helpful and fairly priced. The Vega Travel office is located in Hanoi’s old quarter and conveniently has a room where you can leave luggage and a place to shower and change clothes (although you will just be sweaty again in five minutes).

As with the Sapa excursion, we opted for the longer version: two nights and three days. Arriving back from Sapa in the early morning, we caught a cab to Vega Travel where we clambered into a minivan along with other sleepy tourists and rode three hours to Ha Long Bay. There we boarded our first boat. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason. The bay includes about 2,000 islets that rise spectacularly from the water.

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We stopped at one of the larger islets to visit Amazing Cave which had interesting rock formations. The ones pictured below looked to me like legs dangling down from the entrance.

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On our way back to our boat, we spotted a monkey, who was also keenly aware of us.

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We were afforded some time in the afternoon to kayak, which enabled us to examine some of the islets a bit more closely.

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It was great fun and being on the water provided some relief from the heat.

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After a night on the boat, we motored to Tip Top islet and hiked up for an incredible view.

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Do I look hot?

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After Tip Top, four of us off-loaded onto a smaller vessel, which took us farther into the bay.

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Along the way, we admired more karst islets and passed by several floating villages.

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People spend their whole lives on the water with regular commerce and activity apparent.

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We stopped at Cat Ba Island and rode bikes into a national park.

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Then we hiked for a bit and visited a cave that was used for shelter during the “American War”.

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After a chance for more kayaking and a swim (I declined because the water must be really dirty with all those floating villages), we spent the night on Cat Ba Island, which appears to be a popular destination spot for upper class Vietnamese families. Bryn took this photo of kids going wild in bumper cars on the main city plaza. It was quite humorous.

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It was in a Cat Ba Island restaurant where we saw this strange tribute to Sam Walton of Walmart fortune. Google translate comes up with:”As sales richest BEST”.

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The next day, we were ferried back through Ha Long Bay, past karst islets and floating villages. A three hour minivan ride back to Hanoi concluded our adventure and we were once again surrounded by a sea of scooters.

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2013 Holiday Blog

I’ve been stewing about putting together the 2013 edition of the Wall Street Journal, which is what I renamed our holiday newsletter (previously the Holiday Herald) after Mark and I moved to our downtown Saint Paul condo in 2006 (it’s located on Wall Street, so I thought the name a clever one). While the format of that newsletter was kind of cute, I find I am no longer able to write in the objective third person the way I used to. I’ve decided, therefore, to blog again this year. Bear with me.

I’ve also been stewing with a guilty conscience about not having blogged about the remainder of my summer travels. I WILL GET TO IT EVENTUALLY, but since I returned at the end of August I’ve been immersed in my re-entry and have focused instead on reconnecting with friends and family, as well as readjusting to living by myself.

During my first month back in Saint Paul, I definitely experienced cultural whiplash. At Svanholm I shared a bathroom with seven adults and here I have three bathrooms all to myself. Something doesn’t seem quite right. Also, it became clear that I had way too many clothes, as my closet was full before I even started unpacking my suitcases. Well, I’m not planning to move; I love my home, but I did spend a day with the help of my niece Kirstine getting rid of “stuff”. I also deliberately throw away all direct mail catalogs I receive without looking at them. I’ve noticed that if I don’t know about something, I don’t “need” it. Another strategy for dealing with excess consumerism: I opted NOT to connect my television to anything but my computer, that way I don’t inflict ads upon myself.

How’s that working for me? Okay, I guess. In spite of good non-consumerism intentions, I have replaced my camera, which broke down in the extreme heat of southeast Asia, and my netbook, which was so slow that I wasn’t using it anymore, but I’m not buying clothes or much else besides food. I did most of my Christmas shopping during my travels, so I’m not helping out alot with the economic recovery here in the States.

Okay, back to holiday newsiness. As I mentioned earlier, I returned from my magical year at Svanholm and my summer of exotic travels (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Estonia, Russia and Greece) at the end of August. I promise there will be photos and details about the travel in future blog entries.

Upon my arrival in Saint Paul, my neighbors at the Great Northern Lofts surprised me with a welcome home champagne and hors d’oeuvres reception in the lobby of our building. I love my neighbors. While the Great Northern does not offer Svanholm’s communal living, it DOES offer community living and I feel very lucky to take part in it.

I have delighted in running my old routes, even though they include hills (something I avoided while at Svanholm). My neighborhood is called Lowertown for a reason — it is the low spot in Saint Paul. But, the up side (pun intended) of running hills is that you usually get a terrific view (not to mention that you get to run back downhill on the way home).

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In September I drove down to my hometown of Columbia, Missouri for my 40th high school reunion. The drive, which used to take 12 hours in the old days of two lane highways and children in the back seat, only took eight hours!

I no longer have any family in Columbia. My parents are both deceased and my siblings have all scattered, so these high school reunions are the only things that call me back. We had a small graduating class at U-High (57) and some of us were classmates since 4-year-old kindergarten. Our class reunions are like family reunions to me. I was delighted to stay with my dear friend Leslie and her husband Tim, who were gracious hosts even though they were both a bit under the weather with colds. In addition to feeding and housing me, they took me out on the “Katy Trail” (a trail on the old MKT railroad bed) to find the bench my brother had placed in honor of our parents.

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I also made an emotional pilgrimage to my family homestead. “Mob Hill”, as we called it (my mother picked the name as a satiric play on San Francisco’s posh Nob Hill), was the only home I knew prior to heading off for college. When my parents originally acquired the house, it came with about 8 acres of land, but over the years they acquired some adjacent property in order to protect their view and their privacy. After my mother died and my siblings and I deeded the property over to the Missouri Conservation Commission, it totaled a little over 9 acres. In spite of being located only a mile and a half from the center of campus, it felt as though one was out in the country. Mob Hill was a special place and during my visit, I was soon overwhelmed with memories of softball games, Easter egg hunts, and my wedding, all of which took place in the front yard. The house was in dismal shape, unoccupied and ignored for years. It was almost a relief to come across a sign indicating that the place would soon be demolished.

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Apparently the city has begun the process of creating a park and the house will be replaced by a parking lot and picnic shelter. I think Mob Hill will be easier to visit once the transformation is complete. The house looked so sad and forlorn it made me feel the same way.

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Luckily the reunion itself was light-hearted, as 20 of us alumni, plus 10 good-natured and patient partners, and one favorite English/Journalism teacher, caught up on our lives and told stories from our shared past. I came away convinced that the males in my class had been significantly more delinquent than we females. One of their many stories was about being sent off on a cross country run and, as soon as they were out of the coach’s sight, peeling off into the woods for a smoke. They covered their tracks later by sprinting a few yards prior to returning within eye-shot so that they would be suitably winded and sweaty.

This fall also included reciprocal visits with my sister. Barb came to Saint Paul during the fall art crawl when my neighborhood, which is full of artists’ lofts and studios, is abuzz with activity. I went to Michigan when she was participating in her Potters Guild’s fall sale. We both returned to our respective homes with suitcases a little fuller. Here is a picture of Barb with her two dogs, Honey and Rusty.

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Fall also brought a reunion with my son. After not seeing him for a year and a half, I was more than ready to see his smiling face in person! Dane came to Minnesota for a long weekend at the beginning of November to attend his own high school reunion. The visit was a short one, but was followed soon thereafter by my two-week encampment at his place in Santa Anna, California.

I can report that Dane looks fabulous. He has lost about 85 pounds and feels healthy. The weight loss happened over the course of two plus years when he was without a car and used a bicycle for his daily 14-mile round trip work commute. In 2013 he purchased a motorcycle and began a new fitness regimen of Muay Thai and other martial arts classes. He still works for Broadcom as a digital engineer doing computer chip layout and nourishes his creative side through writing, painting and sculpture. I look forward to having him in Minnesota over the holidays.

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Although I haven’t seen her in person since August, I can report that Bryn also looks fabulous. After we parted ways in Thailand, she flew to California and by the time she stopped in Minnesota on her return to Denmark, she was sporting a spunky new hairdo. In January she enters her final semester of her master’s degree program in Technological and Socio-Economic Planning. Her thesis will look at free trade agreements to learn if they can be structured in a way that does not encourage a “race to the bottom” in developing countries.

In 2013 Bryn moved into a collective in the greater Copenhagen area, becoming one of nine owners of a large house. They have a shared food economy and she enjoys having people to eat dinner with and also enjoys making them happy when it is her turn to cook. Bryn is also still active in her member-driven, local organic food co-op and has helped to spread the concept by making presentations both domestically and abroad. Speaking of abroad, she is currently in Borneo over the holidays and will also be spending time back in Viet Nam before returning to Denmark in mid-January. As for in which country she will locate when she completes her studies, the jury is still out.

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While I am thoroughly enjoying being back in Saint Paul, I will be headed to Svanholm at the beginning of March. If you have read my earlier blog postings, you know how much I love it there. I really do feel as though I have two homes now. So my plan is to fly back to Denmark on February 27th and volunteer again in Svanholm’s kitchen group through the end of June. My niece is getting married in early July, which gives me an incentive to return to Minnesota for the glorious summer months.

Happy holidays, everyone. I wish you much happiness and great adventures in 2014.

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Vietnam: Sapa

Sapa, with its verdant green rice paddy terraces. A world so different from my flat Minnesota and Danish homes. My eyes could not soak in enough of its exotic beauty.

I was so excited to share the wonder of the place that I uploaded a few photos to Facebook early in this trip, before I had figured out the logistics of working on my blog from the road. Now comes the full report.

IMG_8392 A visit to Sapa is mandatory for anyone visiting Hanoi and northern Vietnam. Bryn and I opted for a 4 night, 3 day trekking excursion, including a village home stay. Our excursion had us leaving on a 10 pm night train to Lao Cai. We were picked up at our hotel and taken with several other travelers to the train station. The station was crowded and I was grateful there was a travel agency representative there with us to make sure we got on the right train.

Our tickets placed us in a four-person sleeper cabin with a young German couple. We all settled in quickly, stowing our large bacpacks under the bottom bunks and arranging our essentials in our respective beds. Earplugs and eye mask came in handy, but our six am arrival came before I was really ready for it.

Then it was off the train and into a minivan for the 1-1/2 hour drive to Sapa. The road was mountainous and curvey, and our driver took my breath away several times as he passed vehicles without being able to see if there was any oncoming traffic. We arrived safely in Sapa, however, and were dropped at a hotel where we had the opportunity to shower and have breakfast before heading out for a day of trekking. IMG_8377 Kuong was our guide, cook and companion for the following three days. A native of the area, this charming, gentle man, had a sly sense of humor and a deep knowledge of the local flora, fauna, geography and culture. The trails he took us on were challenging and the scenery was spectacular.

KuongIMG_8386 Our trekking group included the Germans we had slept with on the train and four young French people from Singapore. IMG_8468 Our visit to Sapa was in the rainy season. I think the trails would be tough regardless, but when they were wet and slippery, they were particularly rough. Local minority (Hmomg) village women latch on to the various groups of trekkers and offer a hand. Initially wary of what they would demand for compensation, I quickly gave in and accepted the assistance. Kuong said they would expect us to shop from them at the end of the day.

My helper in purple boots

You won’t see any photos here that showcase the challenging nature of the tails, however. During those portions of the trek, I was too busy holding my helper’s hand and concentrating on not falling to take pictures. Here, on a flat portion, you can get some kind of idea of the quality of the trail. You’ll have to use your imagination to envision it going straight up and straight down a hillside. IMG_8410 In case you are wondering, the terraced fields in the Sapa region are mostly planted with rice. Vietnam is the world’s second biggest exporter of rice, following India and ahead of Thailand. The Vietnamese consume the most rice per capita of anywhere and still are able to achieve this level of exports. And rice production still largely occurs without machines, with the seedlings all transplanted by hand. IMG_8393 IMG_8412 Irrigation of the fields is aided by gravity. Irrigation by gravity

Irrigation system

Vietnam’s population is currently 88 million and growing at about a million a year. The government has a two child population policy, but the minority populations ignore this and typically have ten or more children to help with the farm work. IMG_8398 IMG_8424 After a hard day of trekking, I rewarded my Hmomg helper by buying a belt, a headband and a water bottle carrier from her. I would have been happy to tip her for the help she gave me. As it was, I also came away with some beautiful handwork that will remind me of our day together. Our group was all happy to reach our home stay destination. We were ready to sit and relax for a bit. IMG_8443 A few of us helped Kuong in the kitchen as he prepared our dinner, while others enjoyed a beer on the front patio.

The dining room

When Kuong brought out our dinner, our host brought out rice wine (it’s called wine even through it is strong like a schnapps and one drinks shots). We made a couple of toasts, drank our shots and got pretty merry. We guests ate (and drank) on the patio, while Kuong and our host ate in the kitchen. After a while our group drifted in pairs into the kitchen, where four or five village men had joined our host. Each local then drank a shot with each guest. Needless to say, much rice wine was consumed. I lasted through about five or six more shots, but then made my way upstairs to our sleeping quarters.

Our sleeping area

A remarkable thing about rice wine, though, no hangover! Day two of trekking started out just as challenging as day one. More rain made the trails freshly slick. When two young Hmong girls offered me their assistance, I couldn’t resist. “You be careful, okay?” was their oft repeated admonition. IMG_8486

After a particularly challenging section of trail, where everyone fell at one point or another (even me WITH two helpers), we had a group conference and Kuong modified the trek for us along easier trails. We visited a waterfall and a “Red Hmong” village before returning to Sapa via minivan.

We walked past more fields. Here is one with hemp growing admidst the corn. The hemp is the non-mind-altering kind and is used to make cloth and rope.

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We passed by women working with the hemp to make thread, which we also saw them using to weave cloth. Below you can see some barrels full of indigo dye, made from native plants, which the Hmong use to color their fabric.

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We also passed through villages and past curious water buffalo on our way.

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In retrospect, Sapa was my favorite place in Vietnam, due to its beauty and the quality of our guide. My next report will be about Ha Long Bay, also a spectacular natural area.

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