Nelson Mandela’s Home And The Apartheid Museum

DSC_1309Yesterday, I gasped when I heard Nelson Mandela died.  Although he’d been ill, I remained hopeful that he might make a recovery.  When we travelled to South Africa, I tried to learn about South Africa’s history and apartheid.  While I held Nelson Mandela in high esteem before, I came away from South Africa in awe of him.  While the country still faces significant challenges from its past discrimination, violence, historical and economic divisions, South Africa would not be where it is today without his leadership. I find his acknowledged fallibility makes him even more relatable as an ethical model.  According to Richard Stengel, “he is a hero precisely because he always admitted his errors and then tried to rise above them. And he has never stopped learning.”

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I was lucky enough to tour Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto.  It was a great opportunity to learn more about Madiba.  He lived there from 1946-1961, when he was forced to go into hiding.  It is on the famous Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world where once two Nobel Peace Prize laureates lived (Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who lives there).

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Winnie Mandela lived here with their children while he was imprisoned.  Upon his release from Robben Island, he spent 11 days here.  There was a constant stream of visitors, so he didn’t remain longer.

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Many of the furnishings are original, but the most interesting parts were learning the role this building played in their lives.  In the pictures below (and above), you can see the scorched bricks from firebombs.

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You can still see the bullet holes from government drive-bys.  The family had to stop sleeping in the front bedrooms because they were so frequent.  Below, you can see where they erected a brick wall to hide behind to avoid being hit by a bullet.

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Only one person is allowed to sit in this chair.  It was Nelson Mandela’s.  Now it will remain empty forever.

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The brick line in the floor below reads: “[a] partition was built here to divide the kitchen from the living room.  This was later replaced with a brick wall which served as a shield against police attack.”  Seeing this helped me to understand the type of danger Mandela and his family faced and the courage he showed.

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I saw a letter from the State of Michigan (our home state) asking President Bush to formally apologize for the CIA’s role in Nelson Mandela’s arrest.  My guide was eager for information about Michigan.  I noticed that Carolyn Cheeks KilpatrickKwame Kilpatrick‘s mom, is one of the signatories.  Needless to say, I was a little embarrassed trying to explain the background, the text messaging scandal and his subsequent actions.  During my visit, I was disheartened to learn about America’s involvement with and support for the Apartheid government and proud of the change in our collective mindset.

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I also visited the Apartheid Museum, while pictures are not allowed inside, no visit to Johannesburg would be complete without it.  It is incredibly informative and moving. There is a large exhibit on Nelson Mandela detailing his amazing life.  May it continue to inspire others.

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The Fields of Verdun (Where They Had A Giant Battle In The War To End All Wars)

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The Battle of Verdun was one of World War I Western Front‘s first major battles.  For 11 months in 1916, the German and French armies fought it out on the  hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse (unsurprisingly located in north-eastern France, near the Champagne region).

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I knew the area was a historical battleground for France and Germany, but driving from Alsace to Verdun, I was shocked by the sheer number of military monuments I saw from the highway.  When Charlemagne‘s empire was divided under the Treaty of Verdun (843 A.D.) the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Later, the Peace of Westphalia (1648 A.D.) awarded Verdun to France.  France and Germany continued to butt heads.  Verdun was part of the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

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There were even more monuments when I got off the highway.  I had a little bit of driving time because I got off at the wrong exit.  I couldn’t believe that I just happened upon places like this in the countryside 20 miles (32K) from the battlefield.

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The Germans hoped a decisive strike and victory would demoralize their opponent, forcing a quick surrender.  Hey, it worked pretty well in the Franco-Prussian War.  Verdun seemed like a logical point of attack; it was almost surrounded.  The Germans failed capture the city of Verdun and to inflict a much higher body count on the other side.  The Battle of Verdun ended as a French tactical victory.  Unfortunately, it came at an extremely high cost to both sides, there were about  800,000 casualties!  Cemeteries surround the museum and contain 15,000 tombstones.

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L’Ossuaire de Douaumont, an ossuary next to the cemetery.  It is the final resting place for 130,000 French and Germans who died in muddy trenches. The tower is shaped like an artillery shell.

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Armies (British, French, American, and German) fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.  Even today, entire areas remain cordoned off and live bombs are turned up by farmers plowing their fields.  Notice the trees are relatively young.  Artillery shelling demolished the existing forests.  It also created craters that are still visible (see the photos below).

DSC_0955DSC_0950The shelling destroyed villages of Cumières and Chattancourt.  Believe it or not, there used to be a town where the chapel now stands!

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The museum is amazing.  I was stunned by how low tech some of it was.  There were carts that had been pulled by horses (they had an ancient looking car too) and a hot air balloon.

DSC_0918DSC_0936They still had enough technology, machine guns, flamethrowers, poisonous gas, etc., to be very, very deadly.
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The museum has photos and a recreation of the trenches.  It’s hard to imagine the conditions the soldiers endured.

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After mobilization of the German Army during World War I, the government identified notable artists to be withdrawn from combat to protect them.  Franz Marc (one of my favorites) was on the list, but before orders for reassignment could reach him, he was struck in the head and killed instantly in 1916 by a shell splinter.

By the way, November 11, is Armistice Day.  On November 11, 1918, fighting ceased in “The Great War” when an armistice, a temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect.  It started on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but the “war to end all wars” officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France.

Guernica, One of the Greatest Works of Modern Art?

Pablo Picasso, 1937, Guernica, protest against...

Pablo Picasso, 1937, Guernica, protest against Fascism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guernica was a sleepy Basque village in northern Spain that was unknown to much of the wider world… until April 27, 1937 when it was the target of the world’s first saturation-bombing raid.  General Francisco Franco allowed his fascist ally Hitler to test his new air force’s prowess.   At the time, military aviation was in its infancy and the world hadn’t yet seen massive aerial bombings.  The raid destroyed the town, causing destruction that previously had been unimaginable.

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil wa...

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil war claimed the lives of over half-a-million people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time, Pablo Picasso was living in Paris.  When he read the news reports of Guernica, he quit working on other projects and set to work.   He worked on it feverishly and within a few weeks, he created a large mural measuring 87.17 meters (286 square feet).  When we were in Paris, we were surprised to walk out our door and see this plaque nearby.  It says “Pablo Picasso lived in this building from 1936 to 1955. It is in this workshop that he painted ‘Guernica’ in 1937.  It is here also that Balzac centered the action of his novel ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre Inconnu‘.”.

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Picasso exhibited it at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. It turned out to be a masterpiece and is generally regarded as Picasso’s greatest work.   It combines various styles (Cubism, Surrealism and abstraction) to depict and comment on the horrors of war.  It wasn’t an immediate smash.  But over time, people gained an appreciation of its complex symbolism.  People reacted to the humanity depicted and the devastating effects of war on civilians.  It became a rallying-cry-in-paint to the anti-fascist cause.  When we were in Madrid, we made a special trip to the Reina Sofia Museum to see it.  It is incredibly moving and its use of symbolism is astonishing.  For a good analysis/explanation of the painting, click here or here.

Pablo Picasso pintando el Guernica (París, 1937)

Pablo Picasso pintando el Guernica (París, 1937) (Photo credit: Recuerdos de Pandora)

Happy Birthday Picasso!

Why Columbus Day? How A Wrong Turn Became A National Holiday…

For all you non-Americans, this week we had a holiday in the US.  It’s called Columbus Day.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday, meaning government offices and banks are closed (although many companies don’t shut down).   It was an opportunity to reflect on the efforts that resulted in the creation of our nation, plus it gave the labor movement an extra holiday.

Officially, Columbus Day commemorates the  Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492 (although he thought he’d landed in India).  Almost every American school child knows the rhyme: “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  He did sail the ocean blue, or blueish, but when he landed on San Salvador (in what is now The Bahamas).  In one of the most giant “oops, my bad” ever, he thought he’d landed in India.  While he didn’t quite land in India (as planned), he developed a European awareness of the American continents (Leif Ericson had already sailed from Europe to the Americas so Columbus wasn’t the first).

In the 1800′s, Columbus Day was (unofficially) celebrated in a number of cities (NYC and Baltimore).  Italian Americans, who for many years were discriminated against in the US in part because of their Catholicism, were proud of their Italian forefather and instrumental in having it declared a holiday.  For them, it was a way of celebrating Italian-American heritage.  Today, many see Columbus’ arrival as marking the beginning of problems for the Native Americans (who were already here) and the onslaught on their culture.  Thinking about it in those terms, the holiday gets a whole lot more complex.

Schoolchildren learn about the “discovery” of the Americas.  Bankers enjoy their day off.  A US friend joked that they would celebrate by: going in the wrong direction, not recognizing their destination, inaccurately reporting where they’ve been inaccurately upon their return, and do it all on someone else’s dime (also known as spending someone else’s money)!

By the way… I hear some countries in Latin America close down for the whole week to celebrate Columbus Day (known as Día de la Razain, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día de la Hispanidad, Fiesta Nacional in Spain, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural in Argentina and Día de las Américas in Uruguay).  Geez… the US is getting the shaft.

America’s Cup Winners from a Landlocked Country

Switzerland has many large beautiful lakes surrounded by mountains.  Even though it is a landlocked country, the Swiss can sail. They had a team, Alinghi, win the America’s Cup in 2003 and 2007.  They sail on Lac Leman, the lake on which Geneva is situated.

Alinghi is the syndicate set up by Ernesto Bertarelli, racing under the colors of the Société Nautique de Genève.  They set it up “to win the America’s Cup, while earning respect and recognition as a world-class sports team as well as sharing our passion”.    Not surprisingly, not all the team was Swiss.  They hired Russell Coutts, the successful skipper and helmsman of Team New Zealand (who won the America’s Cup for New Zealand in 1995 and successfully defended in 2000) and several other important Kiwi sailors, (including tactician Brad Butterworth and Grant Simmer).  Apart from New Zealand, the Alinghi team consisted of members from: Germany, the United StatesCanada, the NetherlandsFranceItaly, Spain, the U.S. Virgin IslandsPortugal,TurkeyIreland, the UK (from Scotland and Wales), BelgiumSouth AfricaAustraliaUruguayArgentinaDenmarkEcuador, and Switzerland.

Not only did they splurge on the team, they shelled out for boats  (SUI-64, the race boat, and the SUI-75).  They were developed specifically for the race by the Alinghi team in close collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne , were developed.

On March 2, 2003, Alinghi sailed to a 5-0 victory against Team New Zealand (ironic, huh) winning the America’s Cup.  They were the first team to win the Cup on its first attempt.  They were also the first European team since the 1851 inaugural race to return the Auld Mug.

Immediately prior to this, After winning they (via America’s Cup Management) changed the rules to prevent any team members from moving between teams until completion of the next America’s Cup (which as the holders, they could do) and promptly fired it winning Skipper Russell Coutts.  The rule change prevented him for sailing for another team in the cup.

In the 2007 America’s Cup, the team had many highly experienced members including: Brad Butterworth as tactician, Jochen Schümann, Peter Holmberg, Ed Baird, Juan Vila, Jordi Calafat, Warwick Fleury, Simon Daubney, and Murray Jones.   Although they did well in the Match Race, they were defeated by Emirates Team New Zealand in the second race, but won their final race, defending the America’s cup with 5 wins to Team New Zealand’s 2.  They won their last race by only 1 second!

As a result of this win, the International Olympic Committee awarded them the Coupe Olympique, the Olympic Cup, in 2003.  One of the highest honors in sports, it is awarded to awarded institutions or associations with a record of merit and integrity in actively developing the Olympic Movement.

Alas, we couldn’t see them race in this year’s cup (even though there’s been plenty of publicity about there only being two teams competing, why the race was different this year, and opinions of the changes) which just took place in San Francisco.   The team was disbanded in July 2010,.  Don’t worry, there is still lots of sailing on the lake.  If you’re not in Geneva, there’s sailing on other lakes so you can see it in Zurich, Lugano and other cities too.

Hitting the Beach on the Baltic Sea in Estonia

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Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic SeaEstonia has a coastline of 3700 meters.   Surprisingly, the Baltic is not very salty and rather shallow, so it is warmer than you would expect.  I’m not saying its bath water warm, but it’s not Lake Superior cold.

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We traveled from Helsinki to Tallinn by boat in about an hour and a half.   During the Cold War with Finland so close, the Soviet Union zealously guarded its western coast and Estonia became heavily militarized under communist rule.  They were afraid people would defect.  Also, large parts of the country were off-limits to all but the Soviet military.

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With Finland so close,  most of the sea shore was declared a “border zone” meaning they were heavily fortified and citizens were prohibited from entering the water.  They monitored the sand to see if there was tracks headed out that did not return.  Most beaches were forbidden for Estonians. No one could even travel to the beach on a summer day for some fresh air, non-residents required a permit to visit them.

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Our guide told us that under communism this beach had barbed wire, concrete block observation posts (which must have been freezing in winter), other armaments and patrols.  Today, they are hugely popular in the summer.  Cool young Estonians and families flock to them to swim, play, cook out, camp, and watch the sunset.

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It probably didn’t help that the Soviets had one of their three nuclear submarine training facilities not far from there in the city of Paldiski.  Its nuclear reactors functioned continuously for twenty years.  In addition to the nuclear submarine training center (complete with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with working nuclear reactors), it was a support base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet‘s submarines and several other large military bases.  A former sailor on a submarine said “I’ve seen the whole world, just not above the water.”

 

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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After the end of the “Cold War” the facilities passed to Estonian control in 1994 after the last Russian troops left the country. These Russian Immigrants were given the choice of returning to Moscow or remaining.  Many chose to remain in their apartment blocks in former military towns; they’d spent most of their lives there and didn’t want to leave their home.  As a result, today there are pockets of people who haven’t integrated into Estonian society, don’t speak Estonian and don’t have employment as the bases closed.  Ethnic tensions linger and it is a significant problem for Estonia.

 

From it.wikipedia.org

 

A Hidden Soviet Air Cemetery in an Estonian Forest

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We saw some pretty cool sights in Estonia outside of Tallinn.  The Soviet’s had large air base in Estonia.  Between the base and the cluster of buildings that formed the town servicing it, a cemetery is located back in the woods.  It’s obvious that they are the graves of airmen.

A large majority of the graves were unmarked.  Our guide hadn’t figured out why.  There is some ethnic tension between Estonians and the Russians who were moved here by the Soviet Union to towns where Soviet military facilities were located.  After Estonian independence, many of these Russians stayed but have not integrated.   Did they have plaques on them that widows took with them when they returned to Russia after the Cold War?  Were the names and dates so secret that they were intentionally unmarked?  Did the missions not “officially” exist?  I had a lot of questions that our fantastic guide couldn’t answer.  He hadn’t found any ethnic Russians who would talk with him about it.  I joked about going door to door.  He told me if they wouldn’t talk to an Estonian, they sure as heck weren’t going to talk to an American.

Terriffic Tallinn

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Learning about Tallinn’s history I heard a phrase I haven’t heard since my high school Western Civilizations class, The Hanseatic League.  Huh?   What does that have to do with anything?   Learning about it was pretty cool.  The Hanseatic League was middlemen/traders.  For about 500 years (from 1250-1750), they controlled most of the commerce in northern Europe.

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Before the rise of powerful kings and the modern nation-state, local leaders ruled small fiefdoms, kingdoms, dukedoms and probably other –doms.  Local governments were small and relatively weak.  City dwellers were interested in trade, but paying taxes and tolls to each and every feudal overlord was excessive and impeded trade.   Rulers and the various -doms were too small to develop an effective coordinated response to pirates on the seas.   It was difficult to conduct any sort of large-scale commercial activity in such an environment.

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Enter the Hanseatic League.  Prominent merchants banded together, forming a merchant guild to defend themselves against pirates.  They hired armies to protect their ships and ports.   It worked well and they began establishing trading posts in abroad where they bargained with local leaders for discounts.  The Hanse (which in German means trading guild) would trade fish from Scandinavia for grain from the Baltics or luxury goods from Flanders or English wool.  It worked well and trade flourished.  Everyone got something out of it and the League got rich off of their cut.  Not only rich, in a time before strong nation states, they became powerful.  In their heyday, they were a dominant force and stabilizing influence.

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If it worked, what happened?  Rising nation states, particularly their kings, didn’t want to compete for power and were jealous of the League’s wealth.  Plus, the post-reformation religious wars tore apart old Hanseatic alliances.   By the 16th century, trade moved decisively to the south and west as countries like Portugal, Italy, Spain and France set ships to explore and return with treasures from Africa and the Americas.

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We took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia.  While it was a short ride, it had a culture that was distinct from Scandinavia, both Nordic and Russian.   After the decline of the Hanseatic League, it experienced two centuries of Tsarist Russia rule before World War I and 45 years of communist rule after World War II.  In September 1991, Estonia left the Soviet Union and declared independence (along with the three Baltic states of Latvia, and Lithuania).  The U.S.S.R. recognized Estonia as being independent on September 6, 1991.  In November Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party throughout Russia.

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While independence was natural for many Estonians, it has an enormous Russian population, many of whose families came during communism and never fully integrated.  Nevertheless, many Estonians think of themselves as part of the Nordic and European sphere and Estonia is part of the European Union.

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It was a quick walk into the old town Tallinn from the ferry terminal and an easy cab ride to the airport.  While we saw old wood buildings in the areas surrounding the old town, the walled city has an Old World ambience.  Tallinn’s old town medieval center is amazingly well-preserved as there wasn’t a lot of building there during communism.  The old town has watchtowers, colorfully painted medieval houses, cobblestoned lanes, and old Lutheran churches.

Tallinn, view

Tallinn, view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-communism, Tallinn modernized quickly and prices have risen with the development.  Even so, being used to Swiss prices, we almost cheered when we saw Tallinn’s rates.  The food was great and we enjoyed dinners out, something we don’t do often in Geneva.  We weren’t the only ones, the streets were filled with people eating, drinking and making merry.  There was a general relaxed, happy summer vibe.  Scandinavians, especially Swedes and Finns, come for a night away and cheap alcohol as it is very highly taxed in their home countries.

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The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tall...

The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tallinna raekoda. Français : L’hôtel de ville de Tallinn, en Estonie. Русский: Таллинская Ратуша. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town Hall Square has served as a marketplace since the time of the Hanseatic League. The 15th century Town Hall dominates the square.  There are lots of impressive churches like the Cathedral of Saint Mary o, but the best part about Tallinn is the Estonians who inhabit it and how well-preserved it is.  Enjoy wandering the streets, talking to people and taking in all the details.

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea)

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea) (Photo credit: rlanvin)

What Do Finns Bring Back From Vacation?

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In Scandinavian countries, alcohol is HIGHLY taxed.   Not surprisingly, they are always ready to take advantage of a deal on alcohol.  He says that he’s never seen anything like the Swedes with an open bar.  Yes, I realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here.

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Alcohol is not taxed at the same high rate on the cruises and ferries in the Baltic. As a result, Booze cruises are popular and people take advantage of ferries to lower tax countries to buy alcohol. While waiting for our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, we saw people disembarking with their souvenirs.

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Finnish This Brew, A Helsinki Microbrew Festival

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While exploring Helsinki, we stumbled upon a Finnish microbrew festival.  He loves microbrews, so we had to check it out.

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It was a good chance to meet and talk with Finns.  Everyone had told us that the Finns are reserved and not the sort of people to use two words when one will do.   When drinking, this does not appear to be the case.  We were repeatedly engaged in conversation by nearby Finns.  We really enjoyed chatting about their country, beer and life with them.

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While you might not be able to name a single Finnish brew as they don’t export a lot of it, they have a surprisingly good microbrew culture.  The Finns are making some fantastic microbrews.  If you’re traveling there, they are definitely worth seeking out.  There were too many participants to name them all.

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Some of our favorites were:

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They weren’t all crazy beers, but for the traditional Finnish beer drinker, the IPA’s Ale’s and Stouts were probably different than what they grew up with.  However, a growing number of Finns are choosing microbrews instead of the typical beers produced by big global brewing conglomerates.   Karhu (which translates to bear), a traditional Finnish beer, is now owned by Carlsberg.  Many people report boycotting it post acquisition, however a decline in sales cannot be verified.  Small breweries only account for about 1 percent of Finland’s total beer consumption in Finland, but it’s growing each year as Finns develop a taste for more character filled craft beers.   With such good local brews to choose from, it comes as no surprise.

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Our favorite was the Malmgård’s Brewery.  Their Dinkel and Arctic Circle Ale were exceptional.  We met the head of marketing who told us a bit about the brewery, beer in Finland.  The brewery’s products are produced by hand in small batches using clear spring water, the domestic malts, cereals from the farm’s own fields.  They don’t use any additives. Malmgård has both the standard craft beers and more adventurous products.    If you’re in the US, you can get some through Shelton Brothers in shops featuring organic and locally produced products. DSC_0179DSC_0180

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