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I was up this morning at 5:00 a.m–which I guess is better than yesterday’s 2:45 am!

We flew back from Denmark on Saturday and I am so not adjusted to the time change yet.

We had the most amazing family vacation, taking a Baltic cruise together. My mom came with us, along with both of our daughters (Katie, 18, and Rebecca, 21) and Becca’s husband Connor.

(I apologize in advance to everyone reading this through my daily email! I can just imagine what all of these pictures are going to do to the feed. It may be easier for you to come on over to the website and read it there!). 

Baltic Cruise getting on - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

A Baltic cruise has been on my bucket list for a long time, and we really wanted to invest in a big family vacation this year, so that we could all spend time with Connor and build some family memories that involve him. It’s not super easy incorporating someone else into your family. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad–it’s just that in a way you have to redefine what your family is once a child gets married, so that they feel like they’re totally a part of it and you feel like you’ve found a new normal.

I think we really accomplished that, even if it was raining a lot.

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Plus we saw St. Petersburg.

Enough said.

Anyway, I thought I’d share some random thoughts from the passing scene.

Russia is Depressing

Okay, first some context. We spent a few days in Copenhagen, Denmark before our cruise, because I just do not do jetlag well, and I wanted to adjust to the time before the cruise started. I LOVED Copenhagen. I could totally live there (if it weren’t so expensive). It was beautiful, it was refreshing, and we had such fun.

Copenhagen - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

One of the first stops on our cruise was St. Petersburg, in Russia (formerly Leningrad). We spent two days there, seeing Catherine’s Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage, Peterhof, and the Church of the Spilled Blood. It was fascinating.

Family St Petersburg - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

Everything was stunning, if a little overdone. (Our guide explained, “Russian style is basically too much of everything.”)

StIsaacs - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

CatherinesPalace - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

Catherine’s Palace

By the time Day #1 was over, Rebecca’s big conclusion was: “I can totally understand why the peasants revolted in 1917. As I walked through the palace with all the gold and everything, all I was thinking was, “Go peasants!”

And it’s true. The difference between the rich and the poor was just astronomical. It was disgusting, really.

But communism sure didn’t help Russia very much, either.

And here’s what I found most interesting: we stopped in two German cities that were once East German. They had the communist influence, too. And that influence was nowhere to be seen today. There were flowers everywhere and beautiful buildings and the mood was light and happy, if you can say that. Where there were obvious communist buildings, they had painted them and added extra architectural details so that they weren’t plain and boxy anymore.

I was in East Berlin in 1989, just a few months before the wall came down. I remember what the buildings looked like–they were thrown up in a hurry with no thought to aesthetics. They were ugly. The cars were ugly. Everything was grey. There were no flowers. People didn’t speak in the street very much, and they didn’t make eye contact. It was just so startlingly different from West Berlin.

East Germany feels nothing like that now.

Rostock - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

There are even flowers growing right beside doorways, right out of the sidewalk!

Rostock 1 - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

It’s like they’ve erased communism, and it’s a happy place again.

But in Russia, as we were driving to all these gorgeous palaces, we passed row upon row of ugly apartment buildings and row upon row of buildings that were basically falling down.

Dilapidated - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

The place still looked like a war zone. And it had this pall over the city, like people were still afraid to laugh or be noticed. I guess when you spend 70 years trying not to stick your neck out, it’s hard to start suddenly saying what you think. It was so difficult to get our guides to even admit that Stalin might not have been a great guy, or that parts of Russian history may have been, well, not so hot.

Here’s just one thing that really struck me: In Copenhagen and in Sweden and in Germany almost everyone lives in apartments (or “flats”), and almost everyone puts flowers outside their balconies.

In Russia hardly anyone does. We hardly saw a single flower the whole time.

It reminds me of the parable from Matthew 12:43-45, about a demon being driven from a “house”, but then it comes back a while later and finds it swept clean but empty, so it invites 7 of its friends to come and have a party there. It’s like Russia kicked out communism but hasn’t replaced it with anything good.

But there is some good news: the churches are really growing. So I just encourage you to pray for Russia, when you think of it. It really needs it!

We Had a Major God Moment

As a family we were reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Parable of the Prodigal Son before going to St. Petersburg. It’s a book where he talks about the impact of Rembrandt’s painting of the parable on him, and it is SUCH a profound book about grace. I think I’ll write a post on that later.

Anyway, while at the Hermitage I was so excited to get to see it up close. Of course, we were there with thousands of tourists and only had about 30 seconds in front of the painting before we were pushed on. But it was still a really powerful experience. (That’s my head in the front; that’s as close as I ever got.)

Prodigal Son - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

I Met My Finnish Publisher

While in Helsinki we met up with Markus Miettinen from Flame Publishing who is publishing both The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and 31 Days to Great Sex in Finnish soon! We had a great lunch with Markus and his wife Heidi and they showed us around. So fun!

IMG 4464 - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

We Were THAT Family

One of the most memorable parts of the trip, though, was definitely the photographers! On cruise lines they always have people taking pictures of you, and most people pose nicely. Not us. That’s no fun! We like to get real. And so we bought a package where we could keep all the digital photos, and decided to get our money’s worth. We came home with about 300 pictures taken by the photographers, and we got to know some of them so well they were waiting for us at each photo op with new ideas to try!

Of course we posed nicely for some photos.

Four purple - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

(By the way, we didn’t plan to color coordinate. We all just got dressed for formal night and realized we were all wearing purple!)

But most of the time we just hammed it up! The girls have a running gag that Katie is touchy feely and is always hugging Becca and she’s always pulling away. We have pics like this when they’re 2 & 4, and 12 & 14, and 16 & 18, and…you get the picture.

Girls Funny - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

So we decided to do another classic family photo pose:

Parents Kiss - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

And then thought that we should supplement it with the more modern version:

Kids Kiss - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

And they always take pictures when you get off the ship at a port. Why make those boring?

Family Gothenburg - Random Thoughts on Family Vacations, Russia, and Ridiculous Family Portraits

The photographers had such fun with us that they did a PhotoShop shoot one night, and we got a ton of hilarious pictures. Here’s my favourite:

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Anyway, it was a wonderful vacation. I unplugged (except for Instagram!) for about two weeks, which I really needed.

Now I’m back home and frantically cleaning out my house because my mom is moving in next week. I’m trying to purge our storage room like crazy. So it’s still a little frantic, but at least I’m recharged, even if I do wake up at 5:30 in the morning.

Right now I’m going to back and read through all your comments for the last few weeks (thanks to Sarah and Cheri for moderating and running the comments section in my absence!) and catch up on emails and then start cleaning again.

I hope you’re all having a wonderful summer, too!

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