Sunday, July 08, 2018

A Model Society

A Model Society

Today was my day for hitting the art museums of Copenhagen.  After a very nice breakfast, which had me wondering why the U.S. seems to be one of the only countries where most people are fine eating crappy bread, I headed out to buy a newspaper and a metro card. 

Being in Copenhagen can easily damage one’s self-esteem; everyone here looks like a model.  And not just any sort of model; they look like they would be at home in one of Calvin Klein’s (or Abercrombie & Fitch’s) more über Aryan-looking catalogues. 

Trying not to feel too self-conscious about my middle-aged wrinkles and paunch, I got on the bus and quickly found my way to the State Museum of Art.  I didn’t have high hopes but the museum blew me away with the richness of its collection.  Sometimes, the juxtaposition of art and exhibitions could be dizzying, but I was more than pleased by what I saw.  Some of the highlights:  Matisse and Nolde, learning about the Danish Surrealist Wilhelm Freddie, and the pervasiveness of Danish pessimism in nineteenth-century Danish art.

Afterwards, I jaunted through the royal park and found myself in the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.  It looked like they were setting up, and they were, but not for another hour.  Still, I had some nice watermelon and rested a bit between museums.

Next up was the Danish Museum of Design.  This was a somewhat oddly designed museum, and started slow, but had some real treasures.  These include a rather comprehensive display of Danish chair design, some really nice pieces of porcelain, fantastic Japanese prints from the nineteenth century, and a nice café in a garden.

I rested up with a slice of raspberry almond cake and a café latte.  The cake had a dense almond base, a coating of raspberry jam, some whipped cream with raspberry jam folded in, and a fresh raspberry on top.  Quite refreshing.  As the couple next to me got up to leave, the top slat of the chair came off.  They were a little embarrassed so I joked that “it was poorly designed.”  We all laughed.

As I left, I noticed I was close to a park called the Kastellet.  This is the early modern defense fortifications protecting Copenhagen from the sea.  I strolled around it, enjoying the nice summer day, and then caught the bus to my final museum of the day, the Glyptoteket.  This is rather similar to the J. Paul Getty Museum in that it’s the collection of a wealthy man, the founder of Carlsberg beer, who liked ancient and European art.

I didn’t have a lot of time, so I raced to the French collection, which was small, but nice, and then breezed through the highlights of the ancient collection.  I think their European art collection is definitely nicer than the Getty’s, while their ancient collection is more so-so.

Dinner was at Restaurant Puk, a few blocks from the hotel.  I’ve arranged a taxi in the morning to take us to the airport for our flight home.

Taken For A Ride

Taken For a Ride

We missed the Kiel Canal yesterday because we went through it while we were eating dinner.  We were supposed to go through it two hours earlier, but several tour buses coming back to the ship were caught in heavy traffic, and that pushed our launch time back.

However, I was able to catch one amazing sight.  Around 11 pm, we crossed under the Great Belt Fixed Link Bridge, which connects the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen.  Copenhagen is on Zealand.  The entire span of the bridge is 6.79 kilometers and carries cars, trucks, and rail. 

This morning we had no difficulties finishing packing or getting breakfast.  We were called to exit at little before nine and we walked right out with no line.  The contrast with Carnival, where we had to wait and wait and wait couldn’t be more dramatic (and that’s not including the line for customs and passport control in Long Beach).  There were scores of taxis lined up and within a few minutes were bundled off to the Scandic Palace Hotel.

This is a massive hotel just opposite the City Hall and dominates City Hall Square.  Built in the art nouveau style in 1910, it has hosted Danish royalty.  Our rooms are on the first floor, and dad and my window opens on a rather plain interior courtyard.

When we arrived, our rooms were not ready, despite my requesting early arrival.  The clerk officiously noted that early arrival may be requested and is not guaranteed.  We dropped off our luggage and took a walk down the Strøget, the main pedestrian commercial street.  The concierge warned us that the first block or two isn’t very nice, but after we reach the first square, it will improve markedly.  He was right.

We eventually made our way to the banks of a canal, but dad was a little tired, so we walked back and found a very nice café on Amagertorv, opposite the stork fountain.  We found a nice table indoors, but next to the wide, open windows so we could take in the breeze and the view.  Shayna was hungry and ordered the chicken salad sandwich, which was spectacular. Dad ordered a large, fresh-squeezed orange juice that looked like 2/3rds of a liter.  I had a classic Danish pastry, the Hindbærsnitter or raspberry slice.  This is two thin layers of short bread pastry with raspberry jam between and a layer of what the Viennese call Wasserglaseur, a mixture of powdered sugar and water, then dusted with freeze-dried raspberries and some green dust.

After immensely enjoying our break and watching the buskers in the nearby square, we made our way back to the hotel a little before noon.  Luckily, one of our rooms was ready, so we took up our luggage, I changed my clothes, and dad decided to take a nap.  Shayna, Matt, and I then went to a traditional Danish restaurant.  Shayna had her lunch early, so she just had some water to drink, while Matt and each ordered food we really enjoyed.  Matt got the smoked salmon with new potatoes and a cream-herb sauce; I had the Danish meatballs and a beer.

When we got back, the kids took a break while tried to figure out how the prices at Tivoli worked.  We bought three discounted entry passes and unlimited rides tickets at the front desk, while dad just bought an entry pass.

At 3:00 pm, we headed over to Tivoli and started with the third oldest wooden roller coaster in the world, which is now my new favorite roller coaster.  It was a lot of fun.  In fact, it’s so much fun that after I finish posting this, I’m heading back to ride it one more time tonight.  We had a lot of fun taking the other rides, while dad enjoyed the ice cream.  Tivoli is the second oldest theme park in the world, and it’s right in the center of Copenhagen, just two blocks from our hotel. 

The bumper cars gave Matt and Shayna a chance to vent their frustration with me by trying to ram my car whenever possible.  Luckily, I was able to avoid them (sometimes).  Dad just enjoyed being back in Tivoli.  He first came here in 1953, and then some twenty or so years ago with mom.  We spend some time with baby ducks, did the roller coaster one more time, and then left to go back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

I found a traditional restaurant in the scenic neighborhood of Nyhavn called Nyhavns Færgekro.  We took a taxi from in front of the hotel, which should have been roughly the equivalent of taking a bus, but even though I showed the driver on the map where I wanted to go, he “misunderstood” and drove us back towards the cruise terminal.  I kept asking him why he was going that way, and finally I insisted he was taking us in the wrong direction.  Finally, he said that he misunderstood and drove us back to Nyhavn.  Instead of a 90 DKK fare, we were charged over 250 DKK.  I told him that I thought he ripped us off and demanded he reduce the fare, but dad said “don’t argue with taxi drivers” and paid.  I took down his license information and will file a grievance.

Of course, he dropped us off at the far end of Nyhavns from the restaurant, but it was a scenic walk along the colorful buildings of the harbor.  There was no outdoor seating for love or money, but we had no trouble finding a table inside.  I ordered the five types of herring, including salt-cured herring, apple herring, crème fraiche herring, vinegar and onion herring, and curried herring.  It was delicious, though the salt herring was much too salty for my taste.

For the main course, they all got the schnitzel while I ordered the sautéed plaice, a type of white fish flounder that came whole.  The taste was very mild and delicious.  Afterwards, we listened a little bit to a jazz band jamming at the far end of the canal, and then we took a taxi back to the hotel.

Tomorrow after breakfast, I’m heading off on my own to visit several art museums in Copenhagen, while dad, Matt, and Shayna are going to the planetarium.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Berlin and Kiel

Berlin and Kiel

Yesterday’s trip to Berlin has me thinking about why I like the city so much.  I was hoping that Matt and Shayna would experience the same Berlin I love, but that didn’t happen.  It wasn’t just the problems with the trains home; I think it was built into the structure of our visit.

As we were waiting on one of the many platforms yesterday, I was speaking with a woman who lives in the Moabit neighborhood of Berlin.  When Shayna asked her why she liked Berlin, the woman explained that on the one hand, she gets all the benefits of living in a small town. She shops in her local neighborhood, knows the people in the stores where she shops, who live in her building, who she sees on the street.  At the same time, she gets to go to all the museums, concerts of the big city.  She combines small town community with big city society.

What she said really resonated with me.  Usually, I stay in Prenz’l Berg, and I know the neighborhood well.  I balance exhibitions at the Neue National Galerie with concerts at the Komische Oper.  I can work in the archives or the Humboldt University library, and then go to Café Einstein Stammhaus for some afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.

Unfortunately, on our trip yesterday we had very little of that.  We did some of the major tourist sights:  touring the Reichstag, walking down Oranienburger Straße, and touring the Berlin Wall memorial.  We had a nice lunch in a café not that far from Alexanderplatz that I like, but that was the only kind of “regular” Berlin experience that we had.  

So while seeing the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the preserved death strip of the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Straße was very moving (I always come close to tears watching the efforts by citizens of East Germany to gain their freedom in 1989), it wasn’t the kind of Berlin that I love.  It was more of an “important historical sights” trip than a “here’s where I would live three months a year if I left the U.S.” trip.

The closest I had to that was today in Kiel.  At a certain point, dad and I left Matt and Shayna to explore the Saturn store on what the British would call Kiel’s “high street.”  We let them know what café to meet us at, and dad and I sat down to enjoy the mild weather.  The people around us were almost all local Germans.  There was the young mother with her toddler have coffee with a friend; a table of six twenty-somethings, laughing and joking; a woman of a certain age with her dog; and one or two tables of tourists.  I had a Milchkaffee and dad ordered orange juice, and we just sat and chatted.

After a while, Matt and Shayna joined us and told us about the various computer games sold in German stores.  We continued to sit and chat, but as it got closer to noon, dad decided to return to the ship for lunch.  After paying the bill inside, he came out and said “go look inside!  You’re going to want to order one of those desserts.”  It was not only a café but also a “Konditorei” or a place to get cakes, tortes, and pastries. 

I didn’t want to go back, so I said good bye, and headed to the Kleiner Kiel, a pair of lakes just off the Altstadt.  I had nice views of the Alte Rathaus, and then made my way down to the Maritime Museum.  I had just thought it would have some models and paintings of boats, but it was much, much more.

The museum was featuring a special exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Kiel Mutiny, but was part of the larger revolution that overthrew the Kaiser and established German democracy.  Much of the exhibit was on the early parts of the war and the role of the navy, but the heart is the Kiel Mutiny, which began on 3 November 1918, when sailors refused orders.  The mutiny spread to another port, and then to other military installations.  On 9 November, the Kaiser abdicated and left for the Netherlands, while a new democratic government was established in the city of Weimar. 

The exhibit had wonderful propaganda posters, photos and documents relating to the mutiny, and a lot of great stuff on the first year of the Weimar government.  I took a ton of pictures for material to use in certain classes.

 The former kaiser, post-abdication, leaving for the Netherlands, as revolutionary sailors raise the red flag in Kiel, and the sun of freedom rises.

 Portrait of a Kiel revolutionary (1919).

Afterwards, I headed back to the café and sat inside out of the sun.  The walls were white with pastel pink and green stripes.  I just felt very German.  I ordered the bagel with cream cheese and lox along with an apple schorle (sort of like Martinelli’s).   

For dessert, I walked over the display counter and picked the Baumkuchen with marzipan and a chocolate glaze.  I couldn’t remember what Baumkuchen was, but she explained it was a series of thin layers, like tree rings.  I sat back down and told the waitress what I wanted, but she explained I had to order it at the counter and then get a “zettel” or note, which I would then hand to the waitress.  It worked.

By 2:00 pm, I figured I better head back to the ship, since we had a 3:30 all aboard.  I needn’t have worried; three tour buses were late, which delayed our departure until 5:15.  In the meantime, dad and I packed up.

Matt and Shayna just found that they had been assigned a different departure time than us (they’re in the group just before us).  I advised Matt to talk to Guest Services and see if he and Shayna could stay with us until our group was called.  He succeeded in changing his departure to ours, so that problem was easily solved.

Our final dinner was pretty good for the main dining room: seafood vol au vents for a starter, and dad loved his sole meuniere, while I enjoyed by schnitzel.  For dessert, I ordered the Esterhazy Cake, which I’ve made before.  It came looking exactly right.  It tasted good, but its texture was slightly off.  I’m convince that had kept it chilled.   It didn’t taste cold, but the texture of the butter cream was too hard, the way butter gets when it’s chilled.  This cake really needs to fully come to room temperature to be just right.

Since Matt’s birthday is in little over a week, I told the waiter, and they came out and sang the Indonesian happy birthday song.  Matt seemed quite pleased, though it might have been mild embarrassment.

Afterwards, dad and I went to the final classical concert:  music from movies.  It was one of the better concerts, so it was definitely a nice way to end the cruise.  Now, I’m in 10 Forward with one last “Naut-tie” and my bag is packed and ready for the midnight pick up. With luck, all will go smoothly tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

A Quiet Day at Sea

A Quiet Day at Sea

With no ports of call and no excursions, today was a leisurely day aboard ship.  We didn’t meet for breakfast until nearly 9, and we ate so slowly that I had to hurry to make the 10 am briefing on our upcoming stops in Warnemünde and Kiel.  I find the ship’s guide amusing, but he gets some of history wrong (e.g., the Wall came down in 1989, not 1991).  Afterwards, I tried to get some exercise by doing laps around the Lower Promenade, all while enjoying the sunniest day we’ve had so far.

We had received a generous gift of lunch in the Pinnacle Grill, so Matt, Shayna, and I headed over there for lunch (dad didn’t want to skip his beloved daily chopped salad).  Besides, he said, we’re eating there for dinner tonight, too.  I was curious how the lunch service would differ, and it’s a distinctly lighter meal.  Some of the choices are the same, but they had sandwiches at lunch, and each of us chose a different one.

Afterwards, I met dad in the Lincoln Center Stage for their 1:00 pm concert, and then we both went back to the cabin to nap.  I slept an hour; he slept longer.  I went up to the dining room for the “classic afternoon tea,” more to get the caffeine than the finger foods.  I sat at a group table and we had such a nice chat that we closed down the room.

I found a nice quiet place up in “10-Forward” to read my novel, until dad woke up and joined me.  I then went and got my computer and caught up on some work, scheduling speakers for the fall speakers series, and then went back to Lincoln Center Stage to save seats for dad and I to listen to the evening concert.  It was also a good place to read.

Tonight was the gala night, so we all got dressed up again for dinner.  Dad decided to order the steak, since he hadn’t had any on this cruise.  Matt and I each got the surf and turf, while Shayna had some lovely ravioli.  The desserts were excellent, though we were stuffed and none of us were able to finish them.

They announced earlier today that at 9:30 pm, they would be having a “chocolate surprise” in the public areas of Deck 2.  I told Shayna that if we went, they would pour hot chocolate on us, as that would certainly be a surprise, and it would be chocolate.  We were curious what would happen, and at 9:30, a parade of waiters bearing trays of small chocolate confections paraded out.  All the guests, most in dress clothing, pressed after them, eager to get the chocolate.  As I told one woman, “it’s like they’ve been starving us all week.”  She laughed.

Dad got the chocolate-covered marshmallow, but was disappointed as he thought it was ice cream (far messier).  I had the tiny cone filled with chocolate ganache.  That was about all I could eat.

Tomorrow will be an early day, as Matt and Shayna and I will be travelling 3 hours by train from Warnemünde to Berlin for a quick visit.  Here’s hoping everything goes smoothly.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Naut-Tai in 10-Forward

Naut-Tai in 10-Forward

I’ve been thinking about how this trip is different from other cruises I’ve taken with my dad.  This seems like a lot more work than past trips.  I think it’s a mix of things.  One big factor is that on past trips, dad either didn’t do the excursions or there was only a little walking.  This time, we’re exploring cities on foot, and it’s very taxing on him.  In St. Petersburg, for example, he didn’t get out of the tour van for the smaller sights.  That’s why the unexpected detour as a result of the closures for the World Cup caught him off guard.

Another factor is trying to balance the interests of three very different people in a way that keeps everyone (mostly) happy.  That’s not easy.  Nor can the other three figure out in advance what they want to do, as dad has no internet at all, and Matt and Shayna have no access to google or anything other than social media sites.

Luckily, the rest of the cruise should be much easier as dad won’t be coming with us to Berlin and I’ve worked out the itinerary for that day in detail.  Kiel is a relatively short stop, and I doubt dad will get off the ship that day either.  That only leaves Copenhagen.

Today we arrived in Stockholm.  The clocks moved back an hour as we entered Swedish waters, so when I woke up at 6:30 am, it was now “really” 5:30 am.  Unfortunately, the light woke me up and so I went up on deck and watched us navigate the final stretch of the Stockholm archipelago (while reading my novel).  Around 7:30, I showered and shaved and at 8:00, I woke dad up to go to breakfast.  We met the kids at 8:30 and headed up to the Lido Buffet.

With a forecast of calm breezes, partial sun, and a high of 72 F, I decided to risk shorts, but also pack a windbreaker (which I ended up using).  Everything went fine.  We took the ship’s shuttle to the Opera House, opposite Gamla Stan and the Royal Palace.  Our first stop was the Vasa Museum, but to get there we needed to take the Hop On, Hop Off water shuttle.  This gave us a water-edge view of Stockholm harbor.  It was a short walk to the museum, where we watched a history of the ship, its sinking, and its salvage in Italian with English subtitles.  After that we learned about life on board, practiced how to steer a 17th century warship, and saw where the conservationists work.

In order to return to Gamla Stan, we toured the entire harbor.  Then I walked dad to the Holland America shuttle while Matt and Shayna explored the Swedish Royal Palace.  I was a little concerned that there was no shuttle nor sign for it, but I left dad with some other passengers looking for a shuttle and went back to pick up Matt and Shayna for lunch.

We walked past the palace and the Nobel Museum.  I was looking for the food market, but never found it.  Turns out I just missed it.  We eventually ate in a café off a square.  Then we did a short visit to a supermarket and then a souvenir shop.  We went back to the Nobel Museum and I got us into the gift shop for free, where Shayna and I bought Nobel prizes for ourselves.  Our last stop was the palace, where we explored the various courtyards.

Getting back to the ship turned out to be rather complicated.  All the cruise lines run shuttle buses from the same cramped spot, so lots of passengers from different ships end up crowding into each other.  There were too many people waiting for us to make the first bus, but we eventually were able to get on the second, when it found space to pull in.  This was by far the most ill-managed of all the pickups on this cruise.

Back on the ship, I checked on dad.  Dinner in the main dining from was also disappointing.  The southern fried chicken wasn’t very good (I was told) and my linguini was mediocre.  Looking forward to eating again in the Pinnacle Grill tomorrow.  As it happens, we will be eating there twice, as we have been given a lunch and the only day we can take it is tomorrow (the grill is closed on Thursday and Friday).

After dinner, I went out onto the deck to watch our passage of the Stockholm archipelago and hear the narration. Shayna joined me for quite a while.  The narrow channel and 17th century fortifications were fascinating.  As it happens, while I’ve been writing this, we’ve just exited the archipelago, four hours after we entered it. 

I stayed out on deck for hours, as the sun finally came out and we had a spectacular rainbow and evening sunset.  After a while I heard a cheer coming from the ship and investigated.  It turns out that the portside door to the bow leads to a crew-only bar where they had run an antenna to a big screen tv to watch the England-Colombia game.  The Brits and cheered when England scored.   The South Americans all cheered at the 92 mark when Colombia tied it up.  As it happens that game just ended too, in penalty kicks.

With the sun finally set, I headed in.

I wish we had a lot more time in Stockholm.  There are so many things I wished I could have seen, including the Modern Art Museum, the Nordic Museum, the Nobel Museum, and the ABBA Museum.  Maybe next time. 

For now, I’m up in the Explorers’ Lounge on the Observation Deck (Deck 10), which I have nicknamed “10 Forward” (it’s a Star Trek reference) and have helped myself to their version of a mai tai, which they not-so-creatively call a “Naut-Tai.”  It’s helping me relax.

Luckily tomorrow is a sea day and should be calm and quiet.

Monday, July 02, 2018

I'm Never Going to Eat Again

I’m never going to eat again.

That’s what my father said after our enormous and delicious dinner tonight at Sel de Mer, the French-themed dinner at the Pinnacle Grill.  Before I get to that, though, a little about our day in Helsinki.

The shuttles started running from the ship to the city center at 8:30, so we headed out around 9:30.  Twenty minutes later, we got off in downtown Helsinki in a square featuring a metal statue of a man full of holes, like Swiss cheese.  The day was grey and windy, but not as bad as St. Petersburg, though we did have a bit of drizzle.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I tend to think of Finland and the Scandinavian countries as having a simple, ultra-modern style (which I did see later), but the buildings in the downtown are mostly from the late 19th century, when tsarist Russia ruled what was then called Helsingfors.  Large, heavy stone buildings, many reflecting the influences of art nouveau.

At breakfast, I tried to find a hockey museum for Matt, but it turned out that while one did exist, it had closed a few years before.  Instead, we started out in the 19th century food market hall on the wharf.   Lots of Finnish food products, including some delicious-looking smoked salmon.  There’s an open-air market right next store, so we did some souvenir shopping there, before heading down the Esplanadin Puisto park.  My plan was to arrive at the Museum of Design at 11 am when they opened. 

This was actually a lot more interesting museum than I thought at first (and I had high hopes for it).  Shayna loved the section on Finnish gaming design, and I was equally fascinated and amused by the design history of the “Angry Birds.”  We both tried on the VR goggles in another exhibit.  Upstairs was a wonderful exhibit on the glass art of Timo Sarpaneva, which was simultaneously dream-like and elegant.

Afterwards, we walked dad over to the shuttle bus back to the ship, while the three of us went back to the market hall for lunch.  Then, we too went back to the ship, where I had a chance to catch up with a friend from my annual trips to Gatlinburg, TN, but who I hadn’t seen there in over a decade and a half. 

At 4:00 pm, the ship pulled out from the dock, and dad and I went out on the bow to hear the narration of our exit from Helsinki harbor.  Dad went back in to nap after a while, but I enjoyed hearing about the various islands in Baltic near Helsinki. The final island was nothing but a tiny rock, but it held a fort, which, during WWII, had five navy sailors on it to keep an eye on the approaches to Helsinki.

This is where the harbor pilot left us.  I walked down to the promenade and was there when he exited boat.  The pilot boat pulled along side us, matching our speed, and then, the pilot hopped on, waved to us, and went inside.  The ship sounded a long blast of her horn in farewell.

Before dinner, dad and I went to hear the classical concert.  I like the quintet, but I don’t think Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” really counts as “classical favorites,” even if you do the electric guitar jam on a violin.  I left dad to go to the briefing on Stockholm, which was packed, and then I met him, Matt, and Shayna at the Pinnacle Grill for the Sel de Mer night.

After an “amuse bouche” of seared scallop with mustard aioli on a seaweed bed, we had our starters. Shayna and I each had the Marseilles bouillabaisse, while dad and Matt each ordered the seafood tower of shrimp, lump crab, and langostinas.  Everyone enjoyed their food immensely.  For our mains, dad and I each ordered the Dover sole meuniere, after making sure it would be served in fillet.  They filleted it at table.  It was fantastic and dad loved not having to debone, the way we had to do in Amsterdam.  Shayna had the catch of the day, while Matt had the grilled steak frites.  There was so much food.  But more was to come, since dad had also ordered the cheese soufflé to split.

We had to wait for that after our main courses were done, and it was excellent.  Dad was in heaven and declared it perfection.  He managed to eat half of it, while could only manage a quarter.  All of us wondered how we would manage dessert.

Dad and Matt had their profiteroles, while Shayna ordered the cheese platter.  All loved their dishes.  My dessert soufflé (described as the chef’s take on Salzburg Nockerl) took a while, but was very good (though enormous).  It was rather different than Salzburg Nockerl, as it was on a fruit compote base, rather than poached in hot crème anglais.   

 Over two and a half hours after we sat down at table, we were finally ready to leave.  That’s when dad declared “I’m never going to eat again.”

“Until tomorrow breakfast,” replied the waiter.

Visiting Russia

Visiting Russia

For a moment this evening, it seemed as like we wouldn’t be able to leave Russia after all.  First, we learned that our departure was delayed because the ship in front of us to leave was missing 800 passengers. Then, after pulling out from the dock, we returned after a few minutes because the winds were too strong: 43 knots or Force 9 winds (these are gale force).  At 7:45 pm, the captain announced that we were going to make one more try to leave port.  The winds were reduced at the moment. If we did not succeed, he told us, the winds would return in strength and our departure would be delayed until 10 am at the earliest or possibly 6:30 pm tomorrow.

At 7:55, they powered up the heavy motors and we began to swing away from the dock. At first, we reached the point where we had made it the first time.  I was standing with the cruise director and assistant cruise director and we were willing the ship to continue to move.  Slowly, slowly we pulled further away from the dock.  I walked to the port side to watch the Russian tug pull with all its might.  Soon, I could see that we had cleared the Ariana and its tug, the магеллан (Magellan).  Now, nearly an hour later, it looks as if we’ve cleared St. Petersburg harbor.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting in St. Petersburg.  I had always heard amazing stories about the art and the palaces.  At the same time, I knew that the government was incredibly reactionary.  I suppose that in an odd way, the most frightening thing was how normal the society felt.  The government is highly repressive, yet people can easily go about their daily life without feeling it.  It struck me as a disturbing vision of how easily one can accommodate oneself to an illiberal government. 

We had a wonderful tour guide here in St. Petersburg.  Marianne picked us up after we cleared passport control.  The day was cold and blustery, and I was glad I urged everyone to bundle up.  After a short introductory tour of the heart of St. Petersburg and the Neva River, we headed over to the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.  The opulence of the Winter Palace is overwhelming.  In fact, throughout my tour of the various sites of the Russian nobility and aristocracy, I found myself reverting to Republican and even Socialist sympathies.  It’s hard not to be conscious of how this extraordinary wealth and grandeur was restricted to only a handful of families, while millions toiled and suffered. 

The Hermitage is, of course, gorgeous.  It would take multiple visits to really get a firm sense of the collection.  We had about two hours.  As a result, we only could see the highlights:  the two da Vincis, some beautiful Renaissance works, and some very important Dutch masters.  The Rembrandts were particularly nice, although by that time, the energy of many of us was flagging and we needed a break for lunch.

The museum café was surprisingly good.  After our rest, we headed across the square to the General Staff Building. This houses the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.  We began with a room of wonderful Monets and Toulouse-Lautrecs, followed by Pisarros and Degas, and then Cezannes, Van Goghs, and Picassos.  The Matisses were absolutely fabulous, and it was fantastic to remake my acquaintance with The Red Room, which I saw in 2010 in Amsterdam, when it was at the Hermitage’s branch office there.  We ended with Shayna’s favorite, Kandinsky, who I also love.

After two hours, we were pretty much done with museums for the day.  We drove down Nevsky Prospect, seeing the main promenade and shopping street in the heart of St. Petersburg.  Among the highlights were the Stalny Church and the Mikhailovsky Castle, where Tsar Paul I lived due his fear of being murdered.  It’s also where he was assassinated.  We also saw some lovely art nouveau buildings, including a wonderful food hall, and the Singer Sewing Machine building, whose roof decorations make it look like The Daily Planet branch office.

Today we woke up a bit earlier and headed to the tsarina’s village of Pushkin, formerly Tsarskoe Selo.  There, we toured Catherine’s Palace and Gardens.  The palace feels like the Russian version of Versailles.  Dad, Matt, and Shayna all made audible ooohs and aaahs when we entered the ball room.  For me, the highlight was the gorgeous reconstructed amber room.

The gardens were lovely, though the weather – windy and drizzly – didn’t show them off the best.  After a visit to an amber store, we made a short stop at a local Holocaust memorial, one of the only ones in the area, before heading back to St. Petersburg for lunch near the Church on the Spilled Blood.

Before we visited the church, however, Matt spotted the World Cup Fan Fest Center, so we went in to check out what they had.  There weren’t that many people, it was at least three hours until the next game, but there were souvenir stands, huge screens showing a Russian pop star singing, and dozens of “volunteers” who were trying to dance to the music to make it feel as if something were happening.

Unfortunately, to leave the center, we had to go out on a street that required us to take a long, roundabout way back to the church.  Still, we had a lovely stroll along the canals and parks until we made it back to the church.

I was surprised that dad never complained once (at least not to me) about the art or splendor in the church. From there, we drove to the Grand Chorale Synagogue, the main (or perhaps only) synagogue in St. Petersburg, dating from 1893.  After that we headed back to the ship, where we profusely thanked our guide and driver.

Dinner was very nice, and dad, Matt, and Shayna enjoyed the comedian (I skipped it to see if we would make our way out of the port).  As of a few minutes ago, we cleared Kronstadt, a town and naval base on Kotlin Island, and Fort Alexander, and we just passed the St. Petersburg Flood Prevention Facility, which spans the Gulf of Finland.   Next stop:  Helsinki.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Exploring Tallinn, Estonia

Exploring Tallinn, Estonia.

Last night, Matt went to bed early as he wasn’t feeling well.  Unfortunately, that continued today.  As I explained to him this evening, most likely the problem isn’t really an illness at all.  Rather, his intestines are feeling put out by the new kinds of foods he’s been eating in northern Europe and decided to let him know how upset they are by going on strike.  I gave him two Imodium this morning (all I had), and we bought him a box in Tallinn this afternoon.

The good news is that evening he seems to be feeling much better.  His mood has improved, his energy level seems almost entirely restored, and his congestion is nearly gone.  He ordered rice and bottled water for dinner, and I brought him bananas and candied ginger from the main dining room.  Hopefully, his intestines will go back to work tomorrow and he can join us in St. Petersburg.

Shayna also wasn’t that happy this morning, but that’s mostly because she got so little sleep due to Matt’s snoring.  After breakfast, I suggested she take a nap in my room.  She got an extra hour while I did my morning “constitutional” of four laps around the promenade.  Meanwhile, I could see we had arrived in Tallinn and were being nudged into position at the pier.  Because of the heavy wind, our docking was delayed as the tugs were being used for another ship.  We eventually docked at 10:30, and people started going ashore.  I woke up Shayna and dad around 10:45, and we headed off to visit Tallinn, Estonia.

The old town was very pretty, and dad did ok on all the cobblestones.  He wasn’t thrilled at the idea of climbing up the hill to Toompea Castle, so he sat outside a church and we did a quick tour of the hill (just 30 minutes) before heading back to meet him.   

As we began to walk back towards the boat, the sky started to threaten rain. That’s when we found out that Shayna didn’t bring an umbrella on the trip.  When it started to drizzle, I suggested stopping in a café; dad reluctantly agreed, as he wanted to have lunch on the ship.  I ordered a pastry and cappuccino, while Shayna got a water and salmon sandwich.  By the time we were done, the rain had passed.

Then we made a detour into the new part of Tallinn to find a pharmacy.  Shayna was excited to see how “the common people” lived.  Dad was going to buy a new toothbrush to replace the one he lost in Amsterdam, but I told him I brought an extra (I did, really).  Then it was back to the ship.  Originally, Shayna was going to stay with me to explore other parts of Tallinn, but she decided to go back to take a nap.

I walked around the new town and the parts of the old town I hadn’t gotten to.  I had hoped to visit the Museum of the Occupations, on the Nazi and Soviet periods, but it was almost on the opposite side of the city from me, and after five hours of walking, it was just too far.  That being said, I’ve been aware of the Holocaust by simply how homogenous Estonia appears.  I’ve never seen so many blond people in one place.  I eventually concluded that if someone wasn’t blond, they must be a tourist or immigrant. 

Estonia was one of the first countries where the Nazis succeeded in murdering the entire Jewish population.  At the Wannsee conference, Estonia (or Eßland) was listed as “Judenfrei” or “free of Jews.”  The only Jews I’ve seen were Israeli tourists in the marzipan store.  It feels a bit odd to be in a place where there used to be a Jewish community and not to see any trace or memorial to them.

Back on board, I checked on dad, Matt, and Shayna.  Everyone was supposed to be on board by 5:30, but there was one couple on Deck 7 who weren’t back yet.  At 5:35, they read their names over the ship’s loudspeakers.  From the veranda, I could see them running down the deck (well, as fast as you can run when you’re in your 70s).  After they boarded, the ship removed the gangplank.

After a light dinner in the dining room, I went to the classical concert while dad napped and Shayna went to the hot tub.  They announced on the loudspeakers that due to heavy winds and four large cruise ships arriving at the same time as us, our docking may be delayed tomorrow.  I let our Russian travel agent know and she’s pushed back the meeting until 10 am.  That’s probably later than it needs to be, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Our plan is to meet around 8 or 8:15 for breakfast in the Lido buffet.  Since we now don’t have to leave the ship until 9:30-45, we can probably go to breakfast as late as 8:25.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

I Can Finally Relax

I can finally relax.

After the stress of going to Brussels and getting to the ship, I can finally relax.

My first step was having the special “Nordic” cocktail (I forget its name), which was a mix of vodka, sprite, and raspberries.  It was very sweet, but did pack a punch.  They let me keep the “glass” (well, plastic really).  I’m not sure what I can do with it as it’s at least two feet high.

The stateroom is very large and comfortable, one of the most comfortable I’ve ever had.  There are plenty of closets, a nice-sized bathroom (with a shower, not a tub, as my father had feared), a couch, desk, and veranda.  After finally figuring out how to open the door, I’ve sat out there and read (though I’ve mostly used for drying laundry).

Dinner was in the main dining room last night.  I very much enjoyed my French onion soup, but the New York strip loin was a little tough and dry.  The dessert was good.  After dinner, I explored the ship, checking out the various lounges.  The layout and the options are rather different from the Holland America ship my father and I did in Alaska.  The library is much smaller and isn’t as nice (I overheard one passenger telling another that HAL did away with its cruise librarian).  

Instead of printed maps, they now have these large table-sized computer consoles, where you can pull up views of the cities we will be visiting.  Personally, I would find it much more helpful if they indicated where the ship would dock and the available public transportation.  Today, I asked the EXC guides where the ship would be in Tallinn, and somewhat reluctantly he showed me.  It’s supposed to be a 15-minute walk to the historic city center, so I’m guessing it will be more like 20.

Dad, Matt, and I went to see the magician last night (Shayna went to sleep early).  He turned out to be a British comedian who was rather funny (though I think Matt and dad laughed more than I did).  After the show, I wandered up on deck to watch the sunset and moonrise (around 10 pm).  Then I went to bed.

The beds are comfortable and the room can be made quite dark.  My only problem was something is triggering my allergies and I woke up coughing a couple of times.  I’ll take some allergy medication tonight.  I also had a nightmare about fascism that woke me up a little earlier than I wanted, but I still had nearly 8 hours of sleep.

Estonia is on Eastern European Time, so the ship’s clocks went forward an hour last night.  That meant that to be at breakfast by 9 am, we really had to be there by 8 am.  Thankfully, we all made it.  Dad had the Belgian waffles, while Shayna ordered the pan-Asian breakfast (which seemed to be mostly Japanese).  I decided to try the Swedish pancakes, which turned out to be a crepe rolled up like a blintze, but filled with custard and topped with mixed berry compote.

After breakfast, I did three laps of the boat on the Promenade, which works out to a mile.  Then I met Matt and Shayna when they finished their workouts at the fitness center.  Matt and I played some ping pong to warm him up for the big ping pong tournament, and then when Shayna finished on the exercise bike, she took over for me.

Both signed up for the tournament, along with 20 other players.  That made things complicated mathematically in going forward to the next level, but I left that for the deputy cruise director to work out.  Matt made it to the quarter finals, and we stayed through the semi-finals and the final, before going to the Lido buffet for lunch.

I rushed lunch a bit at the end to make the America’s Test Kitchen show at 1 pm, but I soon found myself nodding off.  I picked up the recipe for Spanish tortilla (an egg and potato omelet thing), but I guess I’ll have to make it myself to find out how it tastes, as I went back to the cabin to nap.  Dad was already asleep, so I closed the curtains and set the alarm for 1:30 pm (really 2:30 pm ship’s time) so we would be ready to go to afternoon tea at 3.

Dad was really looking forward to this and I think he was happy.  They brought out little tiered trays of finger sandwiches and pastries, and both Matt and Shayna said it reminded them of the Huntington.  Afterwards, I told them I planned on walking the Promenade again and all three of them said they would join me.

In fact, though, they had to start without me as I wanted to find out the answers Shayna’s questions: 1) what time would we get to Tallinn, Estonia (11 am); and 2) do we need to take our passports (no, but we need to have a photo ID). They had already done one lap.  In the end, they did six laps and I did five, giving me a total of eight for the day.  One more and I’ll have walked 3 miles (not counting all the walking back and forth from stem to stern).

After we finished, I took Shayna up to the Explorers’ Lounge, so she could see the various maps of the cities.  She looked for all the possible palaces she could visit to add to her “collection.”

In a few minutes, I’ll change into my best clothing for “gala night.”  Our dinner reservation isn’t until 7:30 pm, but I thought dad would like to hear the classical concert at 6:30 and so we should already be dressed for dinner before we go.

A Happy Story

Let me finish up yesterday by beginning with a happy story. 

At breakfast, I mentioned I had blogged about our difficulties on the pedal boat. “I bet you didn’t say what happened,” Matt said. “Yeah,” said Shayna, “you’ll need to save face.” 

“Take a look,” I told Matt.  “Just scroll down to the section with all caps.”

I watched as he found the section, started to read, and started to smile.  “Do you think I represented it fairly?” “Yes,” he admitted.

As we waited in the Brussels train station to go home, all we knew was that “due to an act of vandalism,” said the regular announcement, “train service from Brussels-Midi is disrupted.”  Checking the news today, it turns out that children throwing rocks on the tracks stopped all train traffic, and the need to divert trains threw the entire Belgian rail system out of whack.

At the time, though, we didn’t know what had happened.  “Ask information,” my father said.  Information had no information.  Our train was supposed to leave now at 7:30 (instead of 6:50), but at 7:15 it suddenly disappeared from the monitor.  By then we, and all the other people trying to get back to Amsterdam and clustered around the base of the Track 4 escalator (which was supposed to be where out train would depart).

“Do you know what’s happening?”


“Do you know why it’s no longer on the board?”


After being asked three times by my father to find out from information, I walked down to the Thalys desk only to find it closed.  Right then, the announcer came on and said the Amsterdam train would depart from Track 4.  Up to Track 4 we all rushed, only to find a train heading to Antwerp.  None of the conductors on the platform knew anything.

Finally, the announcer came back on to say that our train would now be departing from Track 5.  Down we rushed back into the station, and up to Track 5 we now rushed.  Finally, the train came in. Now, we had to find coach 8, which was towards the back of a very long train.  Lot of frantic, anxious, hot, and tired passengers pushing to get on.  Finally, we found our seats and I could now relax.

After about 30 minutes, I decided to head for a quiet dinner in the bar car.  I needed some alone time.  One chicken and hummus club sandwich and orangina later, I was feeling almost human.  We got back into Amsterdam at 10:15 pm, one hour and 30 minutes later.

Unfortunately, my work wasn’t done as I still needed to arrange our transfer to the airport in the morning and check in for our flights.  I finally went to bed at 11:30 pm and slept the whole night without interruption.

This morning went much smoother.  We had enough time for breakfast (it was possible we might only have 3 minutes, depending on when the driver came), and reached the airport without difficulty and with enough time. 

The only problem today was our landing in Copenhagen, which was so rough, we really landed twice.  I’m pretty sure we bounced.  It seems like it was very windy.

One taxi ride later we were on board our ship, eating a comfortable lunch.

Oops, time for the life boat drill.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A cascading series of transportation failures

A series of cascading catastrophic transportation failures.

That’s how I think of yesterday.  Not the fabulous meal at my father’s favorite restaurant; not visiting the Magritte Museum; not getting Belgian waffles; not even visiting my favorite chocolate shop in the world.  Just the overwhelming stress of transportation failures.

It began the night before when I was unable to get tickets to Brussels as the international desk had closed at 9 pm.  Apparently, no one needs to travel to other countries from Amsterdam after dark.

I woke up at 7 am Tuesday morning, and rushed to the train station fifteen minutes later.  I woke my dad up and had made arrangements with my nephew to make sure he gets to breakfast at 8 am if I wasn’t back.

When I went back to the now-open international desk, I was informed that the high speed Thalys train I wanted was sold out.  We had to take the slower, nearly three-hour train.  I bought the tickets there and for return, they still had space on the fast two-hour Thalys, so I booked those as well.

We could take either the 8:22 train or the 9:22 train.  On my way back to the hotel, I toyed with the idea of taking the earlier train, but figured that would be too rushed, and too chaotic.  As it happens, there really was no choice, because dad was still asleep and abed when I returned at 7:55. “But the clock say’s ‘6:00 am’,” he said, referring to the clock under the tv that we never turned on.  “That clock is two hours slow,” I replied.

After a leisurely breakfast we made our way to the train station. I had already changed our lunch reservation to 12:30, and I figured we’d take a taxi to the restaurant and arrive on time.  The traveled through the picturesque Dutch countryside, and we saw canals, fields, horses, and cattle, along with the occasional wind turbine generator. 

As we came into stations, I noticed that our slow train was getting slower:  there were delay notices on the platform.  First, it was just 5 minutes delay; then 10 minutes delay.  I began to start worrying about making our reservation.  As we sat in stations for minutes on end, I saw us arriving later and later and later.

“Uncle Jeff, are you singing something?  Your lips are moving.”
“Uncle Jeff, when are we going to arrive?”
“Uncle Jeff, are you upset?”
“Uncle Jeff, why are you banging your head against the window?”
“Uncle Jeff, it’s going to be alright.

Finally, they announced we were coming into the Brussels stations:  Brussels-Nord, Brussels-Central, and ending in Brussels-Midi.  My plan was to get off in Brussels-Central, but when we reached Brussels-Nord, we simply sat on the platform.  Finally, at 12:30, they came on to announce that the train would go no further and we all had to exit.  I heard a Dutch woman say something like “there’s a problem at Brussels-Midi.”

Now, I was really freaking out.  I have no idea where Brussels-Nord is in Brussels or how to get to our restaurant, in a southern suburb, from there.  We grabbed a taxi and hoped for the best.  We arrived at 12:55, and I sent them all in while I paid the driver.  That took a while, because he wasn’t expecting someone to pay with a credit card, and now had to warm up his machine.  Which was very old, and slow, and had trouble booting up, and connecting to the internet.  7 minutes later, I went into the restaurant.

Les Brasserie Georges is just as lovely as I remember.  I needn’t have worried about losing our reservation, as it was only sparsely populated at lunch.  After much discussion, dad and I both ordered the millefeuille (puff pastry) filled with goat cheese and apple, while Matt had some shrimp croquettes, and Shayna passed on an appetizer.  The food was excellent.  I also ordered a glass of a nice Sancerre to go with the meal.

For the main course, dad had the glazed salmon, which he loved (though he worried if he could finish it given how big the appetizer was).  I had the onglet, with an onion relish and vegetables, that was fantastic.  Shayna had the bouillabaisse, which she enjoyed very much; and Matt had the spider-cut steak, which was great.  I could tell that the stress and exhaustion were getting to me when I broke my wine glass.  Luckily, it was empty when I put it down on the table and accidentally set the edge of it on top of the edge of Shayna’s knife.  It tipped over and broke.  Needless to say, I apologized profusely.

Then, we walked over to see my parents’ old apartment building, which had been completely renovated and redone since they lived there in 1994-95.  I couldn’t figure out how to buy a metro card, so we took a taxi to the Magritte Museum.  We enjoyed it (though dad sat it out), but I have to say, the collection was smaller than I expected.  They had one or two very famous pieces, and a lot of his lesser-known work.

Shayna very much wanted to see the royal palace, as she’s into all things royal and monarchical these days.  I’ve told here that dad and I are very much republicans (that is, anti-monarchy).  Afterwards, we strolled down past the Old England Building (a wonderful art nouveau edifice) and saw the concert hall where my parents enjoyed classical music.  Soon enough, we found our way to the Grand Place, and found the Belgian waffle place my nephew wanted to visit.  I have to say, I found them ok, but more hype than substance. 

The Grand Place was full of people, many of whom were lined up for free Belgian French fries (some company’s anniversary).  I went to Neuhaus to introduce Matt and Shayna to my favorite chocolate, and buy some for myself.  Then it was time for the long walk to Brussels-Midi.

It was a hot and sunny day, and while the walk should have taken 20 minutes, it worked out to about 40, with lots of questions of where is the station, why is it taking this long, and my worrying about how to keep my father from falling as he weaved about the cobble stones.

When we arrived at the station, we found our train delayed 40 minutes.  At first there was no explanation, then that there was a problem on the tracks, then that there had been an act of vandalism.  Finally we found that it was a combination of electrical delays in France, people on the tracks near Brussels-Nord, and some delay involving a train in the Netherlands.

By the time we left we were 90 minutes behind schedule and I was down to my last nerve, hanging on a thread.  I just checked out for a while. 

Ok, we’re about to board our flight to Copenhagen.  More later.