Saturday, December 22, 2012

Have a Merry Chrismas in spite of it all

 Volume XXXIX                                                                                                                     December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012

Few people have been so foolish as to write a Christmas letter for thirty-nine years--especially when it appears that writing of any kind appears to be fading out of existence.   The number of Christmas cards sent in the country has fallen by twenty per cent in the last five years and few cards today even contain a  handwritten  signature much less an attempt at a line or two of written text.    The Luddite in me perseveres in a semi- rational way.   I still drive a 1994 stick shift Honda with doors that actually have to be opened by a turned key.   Yet it doesn’t  start with a crank or even have crank windows.   Jan and I now do carry cell phones and sometimes I even remember to turn mine on.  And of course I do use a computer to compose these messages.  But the writing rubber meets the road in the reflection you must undertake when you attempt  to comment on how you have weathered the year.  What has exhilarated you?  What has raised your bile?  What has saddened you?  And finally how can you share  those very human sentiments  with some of your friends without becoming strident, overly partisan,  or self-congratulatory?

So let us start with the exhilarating news.  Our son David, to our delight,  married Lotta Vihriala a year ago last summer and moved to her native Finland.  This precipitated our major trip this summer to see them in Helsinki and meet our new extended family.  You can see lots of pictures of that trip beginning with my blog entry below.    I urge you to take a peek.

That might have been  the headline if it hadn’t been for an even more exciting event: the birth of their first child on October 1, 2012.   To make things even better  Lotta and David and Frida came to visit us for Thanksgiving and here is the proud grandmother getting one of her first chances to hold the new arrival.

It’s kind of scary to think that a two- month old baby already has 7000 frequent flyer miles.  David, who at the age of 48, is not all that experienced in child care, wanted  to know if  new parents had to have a baby shower.  We answered,  “not if you change her very quickly.”  

Thanksgiving was doubly meaningful because we had our whole family there to enjoy. 

In the back row daughter Amy Brown, grandson TJ(17), David, and grandson Mikel(10).  In front grandma Jan, daughter-in-law Lotta, granddaughter Frida, and grandpa Jim.  No ages provided for the oldsters.

In the Brown household, the biggest news is that our daughter Amy, a primary teacher, received her Master’s Degree this fall.   It took a great deal  of sacrifice and lots of evening and summer vacation  hours to complete the degree.   We congratulate her.    Grandson  Mikel  is in fifth grade and doing well though following in the footsteps of both grandma and mom in coming to grips with his braces.  Grandson TJ is now driving, holding down a part-time job at Kumon,  and a high school Junior.  He is carrying a B average and is

interested in Firefighting and EMT work.  Daddy Todd was not able to join us for Thanksgiving as he has a new job at a smelter.  It is hot and dirty work but pays better than selling building supplies.   

Meanwhile the senior members of the clan are keeping busy with their travels  and local volunteer commitments.   Jan remains on the local Library Board and she and her friend Lila Blum are doing one more year of the AAUW Art Presenter Program before winding that down.  Both Jim and Jan have been  spending more time working at the Warren County Historical Museum.   Jim is now on the board and heads up the collection management  area.   He also completed his tenth year of coordinating  OFTA (Old Farts Talk Arts), which is an arts lecture and discussion series that sponsors monthly programs for senior citizens.   Both of the old folks also spend some time at the golf course and exercise three days a week.  In all of our dealings we continue to try to respect our elders,  but have to admit that it’s  getting harder and harder to find them anymore.   Travels, other than Finland,   included Cancun for more exploration of Maya ruins, Wisconsin ’s Little Norway and American Players Theatre, and Arizona.  They are all represented fully on my previous blog entries so no need to illustrate them.

So here we are closing  a year that has offered our family so much exhilaration, but unfortunately also we are a family of teachers trying somehow  to contend with the sadness brought on by another horrifying act of domestic terrorism against innocent children and teachers .  We can only pray in the upcoming year our country  can find the courage to explore ways of controlling this senseless slaughter.  

Be good and remember that we could all take a lesson from the weather.  It pays no attention to criticism. 

Jim and Jan De Young  (

p.s. Did you ever wonder what was the best thing before sliced bread?

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Tallinn Adventure

It's only an hour across the Baltic on the fast boat from Helsinki to Tallin, Estonia. 
Here's the fast boat--yes the tiny little red one.

It looks a bit more substantial if you lose the monster ship.
That makes it a perfect day trip and we booked on the 8:00 AM out and 5:00 PM return. The day was a bit overcast, but nothing to think about at the time we were settling into our comfy seats in the upstairs lounge.

A smartly uniformed hostess scurried around taking breakfast and drink orders as we chugged out of the harbor.  Two German women across the way ordered tall glasses of beer.

 Nothing like an early morning tipple I always say. We had had a full breakfast at the hotel so weren't in need of further sustenance alchoholic or not.

I noticed that one brave young hiker even went out on the tiny after deck, which you can only inhabit at your own risk while the boat is moving as this sign declares.

Shortly after hitting open water the warp drive on our red rocket hydroplane  kicked in and we began to really move.
After ten minutes or so we did notice that the sky was getting darker and rain was pelting the windows. Then we began to experience an occasional rhymic pounding as we slammed  slam into the tops of some of the larger waves rather than gliding over the swells.  The brave hiker on the outdoor deck came back inside looking a tad bedraggled and very wet.  As the bouncing got more pronounced more folks were holding on to their table edges.  Water began to cascade onto the windows as we smashed into more and more of the large waves.

Our happy hostesses began to circulate again but this time it was to distribute little airline style barf bags.  Some folks were definitely beginning to turn a bit green and one not so hearty soul spend the next several minutes with the bag clamped firmly to her lips.

The German frauleins, however, continued to sip their wake-up brews unperturbedly amidst the rocking and rolling.

In another thirty minutes or so the wind and rain began to abate and shortly land was sighted.  Our boat slowed down and I popped out on the little open deck to shoot a few pictures of the Tallinn Harbor.


By the time we left the ship it was just a cool cloudy day in Estonia.  Since we didn't have a lot of time we took a cab from the dock to one of the old town entrances.  

From there we discovered we could walk to most of the main sights.

The central town square was our first target.  It is fringed with outdoor cafes

 and anchored by the slender spire of the best preserved Gothic Town Hall in all of Northern Europe--at least that's what the guide book says.  It makes quite the picture as you approach it from one of the narrow side streets.

At the very top of the Town Hall spire is a weather vane called Vana Toomas.

A long time ago Vana Toomas was a low born lad who won an archery contest that was reserved for nobility.  The victory got him an appointment as an apprentice guard rather than a prison sentence.  He went on to greater glory by performing  a number of heroic actions in the Livonian Wars. Sometime later the townspeople noticed a similarity between the weather vane and  their favorite military hero.  Thus the vane became the man and Vana Toomas became the city's mascot. 

We took our lunch outdoors under the sign of the boar in one of the arcades of the Town Hall
Our boar's meat pastie and some kind medieval grog was purveyed by costumed server.

Then we chowed down at an old plank table.

The Town Hall is still used by the city government today

But it also houses a remarkable museum and many ancient artifacts. There are models of the old town fortifications.
And lots of manikins decked out in period costumes.

It is your job to guess which one is a dummy and which one was strolling the streets as a tourist shill and photo op.

Antiquity is everywhere in the Town Hall and even the basement men's room has an archaeological display.

After lunch we saw the Estonian Freedom Monument celebrating the 1991 revolution that freed the country from Russian rule.

There are museums everywhere and old churches tucked away down any number of narrow cobbled streets. Even though the weather remained cloudy, we were able to take some nice photos.

One of the oldest is the 14rh century Holy Spirit Church

The 13th century Niguliste Church is now a museum of sacred art and a concert hall.

The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nexsky Cathedral was built in 1900.


No visit to Tallinn is complete without climbing Toompea Hill

The view from the top is fine even on a rainy day.

While up there we discovered the charming Theatre Cafe that had a tiny little postage stamp stage

and some awfully tasty snacks.

My favorite museum was the Nuku or  Puppet Museum. It houses a mammoth collection of every kind of puppet and marionette under the sun plus a theatre and workshops to build puppets. We tend to forget that in most of Europe puppetry is a significant art form.  


Unfortunately it did begin to rain again in the late afternoon and the mist closed in. 

About 4:00 PM we caught a cab back down to the dock where we suddenly noticed that there were a whole lot of people standing around.  Some inquiry soon led to the crushing news that the 5:00 PM boat had been canceled and it would be necessary to re-book tomorrow.  We got into one of the lines and began to wonder how we would manage to get a hotel and how we might survive without even a tooth brush.  Lo and behold, when we got to the ticketing window, we discovered that our trusty daughter-in-law (who had bought our tickets) had been notified of the cancellation back in Helsinki. She had re-booked us on one of the larger car ferries that also ply regularly between the two countries on a regular basis. All we had to do was to find our way to a different dock in a couple of hours and get on board.  The trip back took a bit longer than an hour, but we didn't need a barf bag.  






Sunday, December 02, 2012

St. Peter Line back to Helsinki from St. Petersburg


Our two days in St. Petersburg, without the necessity of a Russian Visa, was just enough to make us eager to return and sample some more of this shining city on the sea.   But mid-afternoon arrived and we boarded the St. Peter shuttle back to the dock.

We were early and the lines in the ticket hall were miniscule.  

Shortly we were back on board the Princess Maria and escounced in our cosy stateroom.

It was a lovely day and we strolled the ship,

listened to some entertainment,

and waited for departure and of course the dinner bell to ring.

Our trip out of the harbor saw us passing once again pier after pier full of goods (some raw and some refined) coming from and going to all parts of the world. 


Occasionally we could catch glimpses on the skyline of the Baroque city we had just left.  You have to look a bit to see the golden dome.

A long lens does a better job.

And then the channel widens and the land recedes.  

Late afternoon on the glass smooth Baltic edged into twilight and another splendid sunset.

When we woke up the next morning we were making our way into Helsinki harbor with an uncannily balanced one legged gull giving docking direction from the rail.

So in sum we highly recommend the St. Peter Line service.
Our trip was was smooth, the price was right, and the quality both on board and on shore was high.
Next is a trip on the not so smooth Baltic to Tallin, Estonia.