Many traditions this merry time of year have European origins, though the United States has added to them via storytelling and commercialism. Germany created Christmas trees and markets among other traditions, England caroling and the most famous seasonal poem, and the Netherlands Sinterklaas, who became known as Santa Claus in America.
The small Scandinavian powerhouse of Denmark always ranks in the top 10 in the United Nations World Happiness Report. During a business trip to Copenhagen in June, I was reminded why. It’s clean, efficient, safe, socially minded, sustainable and technology-driven with high trust among its citizens, high quality of life and values centered upon honesty and equality. It has free education and an advanced health care system. The Danes are polite, helpful, friendly and good-humored. What’s not to love?
In the Belgian village of Oustduinkerke on the North Sea, a 500-year-old tradition endures: shrimp fishing on horseback. It is the only place on record in the world where this unique, UNESCO-recognized practice still occurs. It is also one of the most difficult fishing practices in history, requiring mastery of both large horses and tiny shrimp.
The USSR was a communist state and federal union of 15 national republics spanning Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. These republics included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. All formed independent states by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Bulgaria in the Balkan Peninsula is one of the last members of the European Union (2007), a big geopolitical change for this former socialist republic. Traveling there is a step back in time with folklore, ancient sites and older architecture eclipsing modernity. You can also step in time in traditional group dances and smell the roses that abundantly grow in this southeastern European country.
Kyiv, Ukraine was a golden child of the Golden Age then was destroyed twice, most recently, during World War II. But it rose like a phoenix, becoming an important city of the USSR then the capital of independent Ukraine. Today it’s a hub for glorious churches, coffeehouses and clubs, turning its ashes into golden dust.
Paris, the City of Light, has been a light in my life for decades. Its romantic reputation upholds as the capital of France, which exemplifies “joie de vivre,” and as the world’s epicenter of art, architecture, fashion and gastronomy. My love affair with Paris began many years ago and continues to this day.
Hamburg is Germany’s northerly darling that’s a gateway to the world as a major international port. It accesses the North Sea via the Elbe River and rivals Venice with its web of canals and waterways. More than 15,000 ships from over 100 countries pass through Hamburg each year. The city-state also has a lake (Alster, divided into inner and outer parts), massive shipping and ship building industries, and maritime culture from water “buses” to a weekly fish market. This explains why Hamburg is Germany’s second most populated city after Berlin and has more consulates than almost any city in the world.
Discovery is a dream rooted in nature … who knew Heligoland archipelago north of Germany had such stunning cliffs and fluffy cows! This once Frisian then Danish hideaway was taken over by the British in 1814, which ceded it to Germany in 1890 in exchange for Zanzibar and other African territories. The Germans used Heligoland as a naval base during both World Wars and as a tourism spot in between. Today it a site for navigation, wind-energy production and scientific research, namely orinthology.
Beach, wind and fire sum up the Canary Islands of Spain from La Palma to Fuerteventura. Made from fire, these islands all have a fiery temperament. Mother Nature creates and destroys parts of them like a symphony. Stunning beaches and wind for sports are her gifts in between movements.