A Thanksgiving Story
There was a point in the walk to Bull Island where I intended to share a short story but between the wind and the run in with the Easter Island statue, I dropped the ball entirely. You’ll notice as much when you watch the video. My apologies. With this being the holiday season, especially with Thanksgiving underway, I can’t help but think how important giving is in all our lives.
Many struggle this time of year, far more than other times. Some are lacking in basic necessities, others are without emotional or physical support. I don’t need to jump into war torn areas, where we know the need is great, but as I look outside the door and those I pass on a daily occurrence, I have no other recourse.
As a teacher in New Hampshire, I saw first hand how school districts support those who don’t have enough food, clothing, or even shelter. Here in Poland it’s a bit different. I know there is a need but I don’t know what channels they have to provide. The number of Ukrainian refugees living here clearly shows that Poland is a country that embraces a giving mentality. Many Polish families welcomed Ukrainians into their homes with open arms. They allowed them a place to stay until a suitable arrangement could be made during this trying period. Even now the country continues to support Ukraine in whatever way it reasonably can.
Back in the States, many live in a bubble. I know I did until sixteen years ago when I transitioned out of the Navy and went back into education. I remember gathering what belongings I did have in Maryland and finding to my surprise that my favorite fleece blanket was gone. I looked around the house, in every drawer, closest, and box. The unicorn blanket had been a keepsake since middle school and a favorite of mine.
I didn’t take it to South Carolina or Florida for fear of it being taken or lost, let alone knowing the blanket couldn’t be brought to boot camp or training command without an ample amount of ribbing. To say I was bummed, was a bit of an understatement. When it came up in conversation at the dinner table, I found out why the blanket was gone and how.
Stephen in his overly generous nature had given it to a homeless man in Washington DC. My first thought was you gotta be kidding me. Why did he take my favorite blanket? He didn’t donate his Grizzly Bear fleece but I guess anything that wasn’t my twin’s was fair picking. That’s exactly what happened. All said, some clothes, a second blanket I overlooked, and the unicorn fleece were all thrown into Stephen’s truck and delivered to a homeless person he saw near the Days Inn in downtown Washington.
I couldn’t be mad since it was for a good cause, but I found it fitting that my twin had only given up my belongings. I can hear his voice, “You weren’t using them.”
From what I gathered he did this multiple times. It was sort of a funny joke in the end because Stephen had passed eight months earlier and I could hear him rationalizing his giving even without having a formal conversation. This was the same guy who after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 said he was changing his life because if the Sox could come back from down 3-0, then he could do anything he set his mind to. Sadly, his own personal quest ended far too soon, but his legacy and the lessons he provided continue to this day. At the very least, I know my blanket found a good home.
In Dublin this specific memory popped in my head after I passed an old woman.
Let me back track, this memory didn’t show up until a few hours later on the return walk to my Airbnb.
The first time we crossed paths, she was up against a derelict building door. She mumbled something probably in Gaelic and held up a paper cup. I waved slightly and carried on more focused on finding Bram Stoker’s Park and his childhood home.
A typical American, I blew by her but not fast enough to lose sight of her condition and to see the whites of her eyes. She was barely sitting up and if not for the wall, I’m not sure if she wouldn’t be on her side. How she got to that spot, I couldn’t fathom, but at that moment I also put her out of my mind.
In Riga and now here in Dublin, seeing people in hardship pulled at my heartstrings, but I knew I couldn’t give to everyone I saw. There was no way to tell who was truly in need and who was putting on a show. Maybe that’s jaded, but it’s also the truth.
Three hours passed and I was cutting back after my tour of central Dublin. There was the old woman with the squinting eyes still against the wall. A light blue fleece blanket was wrapped around her legs.
I’m confident there wasn’t one the first time we crossed paths.
Again she spoke and I gently shrugged and smiled. Several seconds passed and I kept walking. I felt for my wallet and wondered how much cash I had. I knew I didn’t have change and anything less than a significant bill. About that time, when I was rationalizing why I shouldn’t stop, Stephen and his unicorn snatching deeds came to mind.
Possessed by Stephen’s memory and what was the right thing to do, I turned around. She didn’t see me coming as her back was turned. I tapped her on the shoulder. She lifted the cup and I shook it off.
Slowly I knelt down and handed her the bill. Tears filled in her eyes and she spoke in Gaelic. I’m pretty sure I know what she said, but we’ll save that for another story. We didn’t have to exchange another word. I saw the angel looking back at me, a woman who hadn’t always been this way, who had a long life up till now, but had fallen on a rough time.
I felt what she felt and knew this small gesture would help her more than it would me in finding another place to stuff my mouth and fill my stomach. I walked home hopeful for the old woman. More importantly, I was thankful for Stephen, his memory, and the lesson he taught me years earlier.
In this season of Thanksgiving it doesn’t matter how much you give, but that you put yourself in the right place to help those in need, in a way that truly serves. If you happen to see a unicorn fleece blanket, do let me know.
Just a stroll in Dublin
Growing up just an hour north of Boston, I considered myself Irish even if my bloodlines said otherwise. I know many from my youth that feet the same. My family was quick to frequent local watering holes such as Master McGrath’s and Patricks. We appreciated the food, the atmosphere, and of course the music.
I may have been a bit envious of one local family, immigrants from the Emerald Isle, whose boys sported tattoos of their beloved Irish flag. While my family never took us across the pond to visit, we still felt a kinship, a closeness to all that was Irish.
Being raised Catholic magnified our inner Irish spirit especially upon learning about Saint Patrick and how he kicked all the snakes out of Ireland while converting the locals to Christianity. In my late teens and early twenties, I found a love for Irish theme movies from The Matchmaker to The Quiet Man.
After my mother relocated to Annapolis, my twin and I found ourselves journeying with her many times to the Killarney House for some traditional Irish folk singing and food. While the years have passed and our family dynamic has shifted, mainly with the passing of my twin, those bonds we shared over Irish meals and songs never changed and surely are to be never forgotten.
I’m not sure when I first planned to visit the country. I know I had seriously considered as much when I left to teach in Italy. The budget airlines made it more than affordable, but for whatever reason logistically I wasn’t able to pull it off. Fast forward to four years ago and I booked tickets to travel during a long April weekend. I intended to go around the time of Stephen’s anniversary, to celebrate the island with him if you will.
I don’t remember what canceled this trip. I think it was food poisoning or some other mean bug that roared its ugly head just a day or two before I was to depart. Like everyone else that has put their life on hold due to the pandemic, I decided once I moved to Europe I couldn’t wait any longer.
Veteran’s Day this year fell on a Friday, which coincided with Polish Independence Day and a long weekend from work. Knowing I had the time, I bought the ticket in early September and made the plan to travel to Dublin. There were other places on the island I wanted to see and visit, especially with my desire to find the town where they filmed the matchmaking festival in Janeane Garofalo’s romantic comedy. Still, I had to be reasonable. Dublin was the most direct flight and for $70.00 I wasn’t going to fight that price.
I could hear my brother whispering in my ear about visiting the Guinness factory and getting our official perfect pour certificate as well as our fill of that liquid brew. I shudder at the idea of wasting time drinking what I considered a beer that tasted more like crappy coffee, even though I knew if he was alive this would have been a prerequisite to any trip.
There was a compromise in my planning to visit the downtown area. I know there didn’t need to be one, but I still thought of his wants and desires when making this pilgrimage. To begin I made it a point to stay outside the center, close to parks and decent running. Clontarf seemed and was the perfect spot. I knew the cliffs of Howth were within range and Bull Island was less than forty minutes by foot.
Knowing I had preplanned nature I wondered where Stephen would have liked to venture to save the beer factory. Always amused by his name on signs and venues, St. Stephen’s Green was nonnegotiable. While Stephen wasn’t overly religious, I knew he wouldn’t turn away from a brief tour of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral as long as he wasn’t paying and we did a Kuiper Twin driveby. If you don’t know what that entails, let’s just pretend you have the attention span of a gnat and walk through every room and fixture without reading a thing.
Other than those two spots, the rest was open to whatever whim we wanted to follow. There were no serious restaurants I had to visit. Whatever looked cute and not packed was the order of the day. For myself and Stephen we had to have mussels in some form and there had to be a true hiking trip along the cliffs of the Irish Sea.
I thought any other additional planned venues would be too ambitious and for someone that hasn’t traveled with much frequency these past three years not reasonable, especially after my recent trip to Estonia and Latvia. While Estonia had been a reprieve, the congested feelings of Riga lingered and was a recent reminder of what I didn’t want to experience anytime soon.
I do find the irony, now living in a city frequented by crowds and tourists galore. And yet, where I live aside from Sunday afternoon where families go for their strolls with kids and dogs in tow, my section of the city is a quieter place with refuge from the masses.
Downtown Dublin at night wasn’t even an option. The idea of being around crowds and droves of tourists was not on my agenda; add in toasted ones and that would make a heck of an evening. I could see Stephen having a few shots of Jager to cope with his own anxiety in such circles even though I’m sure he would have managed with a few bar hops of his own if in proper company.
Taking all these things into account, I planned for a low key Dublin trip with a little city action and some country viewing as well. While I wish the trip had been longer, those three days were enough to embrace the spirit of Ireland and what it meant to my family growing up. For the second week in a row, I was able to reconnect with the water and feel closer to the memory of my twin. Whether it was the stress of moving and switching jobs, getting that connection back, one that I felt in a way I had lost, made the trip even more worthwhile.
Join me if you would like for the four videos I made vlogging this Ireland based retreat. The first two videos focus on the city of Dublin and the longer than expected walk to St. Stephen’s Green. Whether it was a bad case of ADHD, I stopped too many times to count. Between looking at signs and street corners, for what I’m sure was all the right reasons, a three hour round trip walk was a grand undertaking. Thank goodness I was alone.
The second set of videos focus on nature, specifically Bull Island and the hike from Bray to Greystones. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever been to either spot, let alone Ireland.
The New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow is a relatively tourist-free area. Tucked away between a major shopping mall and a construction zone for the new train route, it’s off the beaten bath. I discovered it back in late August when I ventured into Kazimierz. What was intended to be an afternoon walk to figure out where different side streets went and if there were some special running routes I had overlooked, I found myself before the iron door.
I forget which Saturday I found my way to the gates and even more what I wondered as I stood there trying to catch a glimpse at what lay out of sight. The Jewish Sabbath forced me to return a day later and I was not disappointed. Not only did I find the place to be an undiscovered gem, but I enjoyed seeing the history before my eyes.
Cemeteries general speaking are not the biggest draw. Many go to pay their respects to loved ones and friends who have gone before them. Others go out of tradition, to see several generations of family. And yet, there are others who are curious to travel in these hallowed grounds and to learn and see what they can better understand.
I go simply to feel the energy, to get a glimpse of the past, of those that have walked before me and the connections those individuals made. While I didn’t recognize any names at this cemetery it brought me home, a recurring theme of late in my life.
Walking in solitude and yet feeling part of the community, where thousands of graves harmoniously welcomed me into their place of rest, there was peace. Not kept up like other cemeteries, the overgrown bushes and unkempt shrubs provide additional blankets and pillows for those resting eternally. They also create a mood and a wink that this place is special and not to be overlooked.
Especially meaningful to me, with every step I took around the perimeter, was the thoughtful creation of the walls - a menagerie of old tombstones plastered together, where the memories of the departed stand watch. Whether out of necessity to rebuild the cemetery after its World War 2 desecration, or simply as a meaningful way to utilize those stones that were too badly damaged to be preserved, it feels right to be guided along by this wall of names and dates.
While one can get lost in the many twists and turns and the countless memorial markers, the serenity in the place is what gets to me most. I’m drawn to the trees that provide a canopy of cover from the sun and rain. I’m drawn to the methodic sound of my footsteps over the partially cobbled grounds, and to the fact I can let myself drift to other places, that is if I don’t wish to dive into the history around me.
Sometimes when I visit I simply focus on saying little prayers for those who had to say goodbye too soon to a loved one. I might think about a family name and what took them from Bavaria to Krakow in the early 1900s or even in the early 1800s. I don’t overlook the fact that many returned here in the 1980s choosing this location for their final stop. For a city where the Jewish population is miniscule at best, knowing that some returned here after years away, after a forced exile in some circumstances, the connection to this land is mesmerizing.
So I visit. I walk. I look around. I breathe the same air. I lose myself in this place.
While I don’t know any of those that have departed, I thank them for the solace they provide and a place for me to let my mind wander freely should I care to do so. In a place where tourists run wild, not even five minutes, several blocks away, this is a place of refuge and a place for respite. Should you ever find yourself at the gate, take a moment and step inside. You certainly could be better off for stepping off the heavily traveled tourist route and into a place that could be your diamond in the rough or at least one that could be a treasured Krakow memory.
The video below is from a late October day, just prior to when I left for Latvia and Estonia. I hope I did the cemetery some justice and perhaps some of you will find the same charm and spirit that I do from every visit.
The uneasiness I felt in Riga dissipated the moment I got on the bus for Estonia. Within minutes of leaving the city center and getting out into the countryside, I wondered if I was making a mistake leaving early. Truly, I knew it was the right call. These lakes and wooded vistas of Latvia were nothing more than a tease of what I thought I was getting myself into. Instead, I was plagued by city life and all that comes with.
Not even forty minutes onto the ride, the farther we drove away, what stress I had felt was all bought gone. Instead, I settled into some journaling and reflected on what had gone wrong for the first part of my trip and with everything else in life. I know that’s a heavy statement and overly dramatic to put out there, but truly I believe when we are faced with adversity other moments of similar angst rise to the forefront.
When all one can do is sit in their comfy bus seat, play Angry Birds, and ignore the stench of body odor and a clear beer detox episode from my fellow passenger and seat mate, these thoughts force themselves to be processed. I had two hours to kill, to see what I could better understand to make the rest of the trip a more productive one.
Pärnu is a beautiful beach town. While this might be the fourth largest city in Estonia and it’s former capital, to me it’s just a large town of forty thousand souls. For that I was grateful because it was easy to navigate and designed perfectly for walkers, runners, and bikers. Even if I tried, which I did, I couldn’t get lost within the city limits.
Where with Riga I felt like another body; in this hamlet, I felt more at ease with nature and the beach that beckoned. Still even with this more relaxed atmosphere lingering thoughts came into my head on why this trip had this up/down feeling. Then it struck me over dinner, that I had no one to share this trip with. Aside from my video camera and friends and family I texted, there was no other physical presence to experience this reality. To be frank, that was a challenge.
This was the first trip I can remember feeling out of sorts with my traveler of one status. I share it freely now, because many people travel alone. We all don’t have the luxury of travel friends or a romantic partner that we can tolerate enough to venture out to other parts of the world. To that end, when any unsettling experiences arise, all one can do is rely on themselves. It’s easier said than done.
While I loved walking the quiet streets and commenting on the varied buildings and architecture, I would have preferred to have spoken more on the history of the region. Obsessed with all things Estonia since the early 1990s, I was game to share my knowledge of what the transition had been like after the fall of the Soviet Union. Moreover, talking about what life was like as an independent country prior to communism would have been a worthwhile conversation.
Despite these best intentions, I remained stuck in my head. Having suffered in a way with the city life of Riga, I became that little boy from Brentwood who simply wanted to feel like he was back home riding his bike in the woods. The remainder of the trip was focused on rebooting the system and grounding myself.
Part of this reboot was a continued connection to the water. It didn’t matter the time of day, the weather, or the temperature; I kept walking the same section of beach waiting for that cosmic wink that things would be okay.
Some might tell you being alone is a state of mind. Some might even be envious of a trip without any friends or family to consider. And yet standing out on the shoreline looking out at the vastness of the Baltic Sea, I was reminded of how dreams change and in the future it’s better to not force things.
The fact during my previous teaching stint overseas (five years earlier) led to three canceled trips to this region should have told me something. It’s not necessarily timing, but perhaps divine intervention saying there are other places to be that will resonate more. I laughed thinking back at the previous trip I canceled and how instead of traveling I hunkered down in my Brindisi apartment and wrote most of the first draft to Valo in a one week period.
On this trip, I had intentions to write, to dive into National Novel Writing Month and instead I can report that the journal I wrote in daily, basically to process my thoughts of loneliness and questionable dating past, was left behind on the Lux Express bus I traveled on from Estonia back to Riga.
Talk about a wink that this wasn’t the area for any writing, let alone for any meaningful writing to remain in my possession. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this portion of my trip. There was peace in the air and even though I didn’t see the sun the entire time, feeling a closeness to the water was all I really needed.
Returning a few days later, I felt relief that I could finally move forward and check off these Baltic boxes. Neither trip was what I had expected or planned. Then again, I needed downtime to process some deeper thoughts, to move on from loss, and to realize that sometimes the best vacation is either one spent at home or among familiar things.
Traveling is said for many to be a way to see new locations, try new foods, and experience different cultures. For me, while that might be true at some point, right now it’s about finding that sense of home and familiarity in a toxic world that is continually a challenge to navigate. Here’s to the next trip being a better match for my current state of mind.
(Note the first two videos of my Estonia trip have been linked below. There are four total so by the time you watch these might very well all be up in the Baltic section of my YouTube channel.)
There was more trepidation than I would care to admit getting back on an airplane, let alone flying to a country I never visited. I thought with it being basically three months since my arrival in Poland any hesitation would be out the window. My previous excuses for not traveling the last two plus years have been due to Covid. Wouldn’t you know it but the end of September took care of that with a healthy dose of bed rest and extra portions of Magnum ice cream bars.
Going to Latvia and Estonia were bucket list countries, ones that I had intended to visit for over six years (Latvia) and twenty-eight for Estonia. I wish I could report back and tell you both countries were exactly how I imagined with planned return trips on the horizon, but the universe has a funny way of shifting focus.
To begin, I had the highest of hopes for both spots. I even looked at potential airfares to return during my Christmas vacation. There were different activities from an old Soviet Union plane museum, to an Orthodox church on the water, to the Riga Zoo, that I knew I could fit in on a future trip. This trip would be one for getting acclimated and learning how to get around without stressing myself out. Now I’ll be the first to say I’m not some city slicker. If I have a choice, it’s more rural or a smaller city at best.
If you look at any of my travels the last six weeks, aside from a trip to Warsaw to visit a park that is long past its prime, I have traveled mainly to cities with less than fifty thousand people, save the day trip to Katowice to chase a spaceship. The point being, I underestimated how congested Riga would feel as the largest city in the Baltic states.
I should have known immediately upon getting on the bus from the airport to the city center, that for a more introverted personality who did his best to keep his distance during the majority of the pandemic, that this was not going to work out well. Let’s be clear, I could have been ripped off and taken a taxi for twenty-five dollars as opposed to the two dollars it cost to do my best sardine imitation with a hundred strangers who had the same idea to save a buck. Wanting to get a real local experience, I paid for this awful Disney wannabee trip where at best I stood against a pole with six inches between me and the exit door.
Several yahoos, who would be my traveling companions, enjoyed the thrill of adjusting ourselves at every stop as more idiots tried to see how many people could be crammed into our little section. At one point we just laughed at the onlookers who tried to join us, with one guy actually telling him, “Yeah right.” There was no space, save the schmuck and his two traveling companions glued to their phones that elected to throw their bags on top of the lone free seat in the entire bus. I might have made a break for the area, simply to see if it was possible to call this fellow traveler out for his callousness, but I had other problems.
Between the exit door doing its best guillotine impression of my hands and feet at every stop, I had a little girl who insisted on pushing me closer to my doom. Even when she wasn’t pushing me, the little girl who was coughing up a lung didn’t help matters much. Her mother had no concept of germs and deemed her hand the appropriate barrier to protect the rest of us from whatever infection or ailment her daughter carried.
After twenty-five minutes of this road show, I saw that we had managed to get to the Latvian National Library. A beautiful structure with over four million books, I would have jumped to walk through their halls, but had to settle for getting off the bus once we crossed the bridge. I knew there were still several more stops until the expected departure, but short of screaming, I had to get off when I did.
True to every other place, the college population paid closer attention to their screens than walking through the underpasses and the sidewalks. I felt like I was in a 3d version of Frogger which entailed me almost getting run over by a 1950s style tram whose track conveniently came out from a blind spot on the corner of a derelict building.
In my infinite wisdom to get a real Latvian experience I didn’t book a hotel room in the old town. That was for Instagram tourists, love birds, or British stag parties who needed better proximity to the many bars and establishments that enjoyed taking easy money. Maybe the extra fifteen minutes of walking was worth the added price. I wouldn’t know the difference because instead I sought out the most direct route to my living quarters, a route that opened my eyes yet again to city living and the contrasts of those residing within the limits.
Not since Warsaw in 2017 have I seen any homeless people camped out in underpasses or at bus stops. Granted currently living in Krakow, I’ve seen my share of public intoxication (by college students in the early morning hours), but nothing during the afternoon in the middle of the week. Within a few minutes in this section of Riga, I saw both.
I managed to figure out where the central market was, the largest in the Baltics with oversized German Zeppelin hangars as the covered portion of this shopping bazaar. I might have taken longer to admire the flower district with numerous booths and stands of varied colors and designs, but I was still reeling.
The blasted underpass I was forced to walk through, a tunnel of shady proportions, was unsettling at best. This sorry bastard pissed himself after a duo of college aged girls passed his woefully obvious bathroom spot. Granted, they weren’t lucky from their vantage point either. Who thinks someone is going to drop their drawers next to a busy road at the entrance of a heavily frequented sidewalk? I sure didn’t. To see this inebriated man chase after the girls after he soiled himself didn’t help matters. Even with them yelling at him to let them be, he followed them all the way to the market, probably asking for some change or a date to make up for them ruining his precious relief moment.
I couldn’t believe this was my introduction to the city. Lines of people waited for buses not even fifty feet from this exchange, and there I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. I wish I could say the rest of the trip was easy after those initial awkward moments, but I think it was the beginning of the end for me.
Even before the pandemic I was always careful about my traveling. I wanted to make sure it was as flexible as possible and that I wasn’t adding anything to cause unnecessary stress. Being around people, let alone crazy drunk people wasn’t on my to do list for vacation.
I would love to have a conversation about how Riga was a city of contrasts from newer buildings, remodeled ones, and completely derelict ones all on the same street. The same was true of the sidewalks, the shops, and from what I could gather the people as well. As a lover of Art Nouveau, aside from an early morning run, I didn’t get a chance to compare Riga to Prague or other hot spots of this style. This city famed for this architectural style wisely hid these beautiful structures far enough away from the real city and close enough to the tourists, or those more financially endowed to paint a completely different picture.
Of course there is always more to the story, but the short version is I wasn’t ready for Riga. She might have been ready for me, but it was too much stimulation, too much varied energy, and as a lone traveler I needed to be somewhere more low key where I could feel grounded and renewed.
I did find some moments of brevity and release, from my walk to the opera house, seeing what remained of the largest synagogue, and finding a half decent restaurant in the old town. Still, I had planned to be in Riga for two nights. I was already on a bus to Estonia after one.
Sixteen plus years as a published author, Jonathan has been independent the last eleven. With readers across forty-seven countries and six continents, he has readers around the world. Writing across genres, he loves good dialogue and flawed characters.