Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. A.k.a. the week I turned 21.

So, I turned 21 this week.  I'll never forget that the week I turned 21, I went to seven different countries!  I didn't realize it until tonight, but it was only six days ago that I left the Black Forest in Germany and headed to Basel, Switzerland.  Then I headed back into Germany and went to Berlin for a day.  Then I went on a bus ride which took me from Berlin to two different stops in Poland, and a lay over in Kaunas, Lithuania.  Soon enough I was in Riga, Latvia. Two days later I was in Estonia and now I'm in Finland.  Yep, seven countries.  Whoa.

Since I last wrote, I had been recovering from being sick, which has been going relatively well, although, I've definitely realized that it has taken a toll on my ability to just wander around aimlessly through Europe.  Although, my exhaustion could be from the fact that the longest I've stayed in one bed besides for when I was sick was the three nights I spent in a hostel in Hamburg.  Otherwise, I've been on the move constantly for a month now.  Its a great feeling!  Also, its pretty amazing to think of how fast the last month has gone.  Today marks the exact half way mark of my back packing journey! 

Anyways, on to what I've been up to.

So, I'll start with Switzerland.  Right after I wrote the last blog, I left the cafe I was sitting in in Basel and headed out to explore.  I really liked Basel, it was an easy city to walk around, although suddenly a huge thunderstorm hit and I was right back to that cafe.  After the rain let up I left and went out to a park bench and just read.  It was nice just relaxing and not worrying too much about stuff.  After a while, I headed to the train station, bought some Swiss chocolate...of course, some fruit and a sandwich and boarded my first over night train.

The train took me from Basel to Berlin.  I left around 9:30 PM and arrived in Berlin around 7:00 AM.  The train was fine, smelled a bit weird, but I was able to sleep a bit.  Once I arrived in Berlin, I walked out of the train and immediately saw a Dunkin Donuts, which of course made me extremely excited and I literally ran up the escalator to get to it.   I had a bus booked to leave Berlin the next day, and I knew I would be back in only a week or so, so I decided to take it easy in Berlin as well.  I walked around the city a bit, and sat in a cafe and read a lot.  I booked a relatively cheap hotel room to avoid hostels for another night, especially since I knew I would be spending the next night on a bus and since I had spent the previous night on a train.  I went to bed after I had a drink with some Canadians who were down in the lobby.  I went to bed relatively early, which was great!

The next day I prepared to get on the bus to get to Riga, Latvia.  As a present to my dad for father's day and his birthday my mom bought him a ticket to come see me out in Europe, which has been great!  It has been good to get away from hostels for a bit and spend time eating in decent places with my dad!  It also felt great to slow down a bit.  We decided Riga, Latvia would be our starting point for one specific reason.  Many years ago we met Ilga Pogulis, a Latvian immigrant who we came to love and learn a lot from. 

My first memory of Ilga came when I was in elementary school standing at the bus stop and seeing this old woman just staring at me through her window.  I remember being sort of terrified and unsure about her.  Eventually over the years our neighbors Janet and George introduced us to this woman and immediately we fell in love with her.  By the time I had met Ilga she was in her mid 80s and had lived quite an amazing life.  She was born and raised in Latvia.  She was a small child when Latvia ended fighting for their independence around 1920, and would see her country be attacked by Russians, then Germans and Russians again. She eventually left her country in the 1940s and never was able to return.  She ended up in Mansfield, CT where I was fortunate enough to meet her and get to know her in the last few years of her life.  I knew she cared a lot for her home, and we promised her that one day if we had the chance we would go to Latvia and see where she had come from.  It meant a lot to me and my dad to be able to go to her home, where she had left in the 1940s.  It wasn't only great to feel as if we had fulfilled a promise, but also because it enabled us to remember a lot of the times we spent with Ilga, which was really important to us!    

So, the trip to Latvia begins with me boarding the bus in Berlin and preparing for the long journey.  The bus left around 8 PM and stopped twice during the night in Poland.  Otherwise, we were just driving.  Sleeping on a bus is very hard.  I slept only about two hours, or so.  The guy across from me kept yelling in his sleep and that made it a bit difficult to sleep.  Literally, every five minutes, he would just scream.  I was scared of him.

I arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania around noon the next day.  I had one hour where I just sort of meandered around the bus station.  I didn't see much, but got a sense for the differences in the town.  There seemed to be a lot more poverty than any other place I'd seen.  There were still a lot of soviet era buildings that needed to be renovated as well.  By 1 we were on our way to Riga, where I arrived and walked over to the hotel where I was going to meet my dad.  After we met up, we explored Riga.

Personally, I loved Riga.  The old city was beautiful.  It was very simple, but really had a character to it.  You would walk down a small side street with cobble stone, lined by little shops and restaurants and come to large "court yards" where there would be large out door restaurants and outdoor shops.  Many of these shops sold amber jewelry and such, which is popular in the Baltics.  We had a great time walking through the parks and the city and finally settling on a great place to eat.  It was really awesome to have a great dinner with my dad!

The next day, we walked around, found a great bakery and went to the Opera house, where in the 1930s my great grandmother, Gramp Rose, actually sang!  We met with a lady who worked there who ended up taking us for a tour of the entire place, it was really nice and really special to see.   Then, we walked around, went and got some lunch and later some more coffee.  We went to a really huge meat market and also bought our tickets for the next day to leave for Tallinn, Estonia.  After walking around some more, we decided to take it easy and have a relaxed dinner.  It was a great night.

Freedom Monument in Riga

rubbing for good luck!

My Great Grandmother Rose Bampton sang here in the 1930s! 

Mrs. P, back in Latvia...she would be laughing at us if she was still alive, but also really happy!

best mustache ever, literally. 

The next day, I turned 21!  Yay!  We woke up, got on the bus and four hours later we were in Tallinn, Estonia.  We walked around the old city and had a great lunch at a traditional Estonian restaurant.  We took a lot of pictures too...

That night, we found a great restaurant!  We had great wine, and great food and a really relaxed evening.  I also got free cake which was awesome!

The next morning (this morning) we boarded a ferry for Helsinki, Finland.  That is where I am now!  We mainly just walked around today, saw the city and had a relaxed dinner with some great Italian wine!  Tomorrow, we are planning on doing some stuff around the city and eventually making our way back to Riga the day after tomorrow.  On Saturday my dad heads home to the USA and I head to Berlin (hopefully...depending on whether or not this ash cloud delays my flight or not).  I'm really excited to head to Berlin to hang out with Garrett and have an awesome week/weekend in one of the greatest cities!  Then I'm off to Warsaw to spend a couple of days with my friend Emily. 
out the window in Helsinki at 11:25 PM...its still light! 

I've been feeling great about my travels lately!  I'm here for another month and I'm making it count!

Thanks for reading everyone!    




  1. Stephen, Words cannot describe how blessed you are not only to have known Ilga but to be able to travel to her home land and so many other places! Keep enjoying and sharing! Give dad a big hug from me!
    Love the pictures:)

  2. Stephen,

    Nothing about your Dad humiliating you, getting hurt, causing an international incident??? Come on, you are holding out on us, Enquiring minds want to know......this is the Blog I have been waiting for all week, but no details, I know you are holding back. Feel free to email me under seperate cover so I have the ammunition needed when he arrives home. Remember, I have traveled with him, I know what you are going through.

    You both continue to have a great time, wonderful update,great to think of you both having the opportunity to explore the world together!!

    Tom S

  3. what, no pictures of Dermot in his ubiquitous sports shorts???

    Oh well, I suppos we will have to wait for him to get back to being with us, where he can embarrass us instead!!

    Actually,... its wonderful that Dermot has spent some good times with you stephen, in a place that has signifincace to you both... Mrs P. would be so thrilled to know you were there!!

    We are looking forward to all the stories..
    love Rosalind, mallory and chocoura at Pearl Lake