Friday, September 21, 2007

The European Dream Part Four - Yellowbluevase

At the moment we are getting closer to Copenhagen, due to arrive in five hours or so. The sun has burned through the morning clouds, and while it’s a little warm there’s still a slight breeze mixed with haze about half a mile out in all directions. The sea is extremely calm, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say we were in the middle of a huge lake. Still, as I stride down the corridors of Deck 5, I am reminded that I am on The Dream. This morning, in fact, I encountered a completely new smell… incense… I kid you not… Someone is burning incense somewhere mid ship on Deck 6 port side. While peculiar, it sure beats the alternative that I have mentioned far too often in previous paragraphs.

So, what’s been going on since we last spoke? Well, lets get right down to it. While in Dover I was able to take in Dover Castle, properly this time. Staying above ground I explored the castle and its grounds. There were lots of school children there, taking part in activities like jousting and archery. After walking around the keep I made my way to a view point where I got a good look at the White Cliffs of Dover…

As I mentioned in the closing of my last blog, this cruise marks the end of our Baltic run, both for this season, and for the Dream in general. Since 1993 she has sailed the Baltic (with the exception of Alaska in 2005) and after we hit Dover on the 27th of September, The Dream will never return. Her fate, like her sister ship The Wind, is to be turned over to The Orient Line and be transformed into a gambling vessel, taking weekend cruisers out to international waters so they can do what they can’t do within city limits.

What is most impressive about the Dream is that she is the only ship in the Norwegian fleet that can navigate the Keil Canal, our gateway to the Baltic through Germany. This is because she was modified to bend down her mast and flip open her stacks in order to fit under the bridges that rise over and cross the Keil Canal. The stacks flip open like a lunch box, taking about five or seven minutes from beginning to end. The mast cracks open at the base and bends aft, like a great white limbo participant.

Another interesting point to mention is that for some reason, The Dream has a fan club along the canal. Upon entering and passing through the first lock (a difference of 3 feet I think) there is always a band playing, hundreds of people cheering and waving flags of all different nations, and a general stir amongst the locals. As we sail through the canal, cars drive along side us, German and American flags streaming from the windows, and honking in a repetitive rhythm until the Dream’s mighty horn calls out to repeat. And it’s like this for all the seven or eight hours it takes us to complete our journey into the Baltic Sea… well into the night. Here is a picture of the canal from the back of the ship.

When we stop in the locks, usually a German band comes on to entertain the pax. This time, along with the band came a group of men from the German navy who had formed a choir and band, along with the mayor of our entry town (which has a name that is long and German) who with his translator gave a very appreciative speech to the pax and crew in the Stardust that evening. The Captain and crew presented him with a check to a local hospital there that helps terminally ill children, and the evening was capped with music and singing by the afore mentioned naval choir.

Our first stop, Warnemunde (again with the two dots on the U that I can’t seem to pencil in here) Germany, also has a crowd that sees us off after our day in port. Upon leaving port, there were hundreds of people crowding the pier with banners, flags, cameras… Several vessels, including one tug boat that would do circles on our port side and get very close to our hull, followed us out to the sea, honking and cheering us on. Finally, as we sailed into the night, there were fireworks off of our bow on the starboard side. It seems that since we’ve been visiting Warnemunde so long, they feel The Dream is like extended family. It was quite a send off.

I was planning to show you a really cool video on the Keil Canal, but my computer seems to have other plans... check back later for that. In the meantime my Compaq and I are attending counseling.

UPDATE 11/2/07

After many weeks of therapy, my Compaq and I have come to an agreement... Here's the video I promised you so many weeks ago:

This time, while in Germany, I was fortunate enough to escort a tour to Berlin. Entitled “East meets West” it focused on the Berlin Wall, taking us to several sights in which it stood, Checkpoint Charlie, and then on to other points of interest in the city. From Warnemunde it took about two and a half hours by train to get to Berlin. That morning I realized that my luck has run out in the numbered paddle department. You’ll recall that last time I was escorting a group whose number did not match that on my paddle. Well, this time they just plain didn’t have a paddle for me… This wasn’t exactly a bad thing, as the pax on the bus never really got the message that I was a rep of NCL. So, while I still counted heads (34 this time, but the guide never left me behind anywhere) I blended in with the pax, absorbing more of the culture and not having to answer the “what’s working on the ship like” type questions.

What also made our tour better than some that I had taken was how the tour guide conducted business. Along the way to whatever stop we were making he would tell us all about where we were going, historical facts, things that happened and the like. Then we would arrive, and he would turn us loose, telling us when to be back on the bus. That allowed everyone to take pictures (or me, anyway, as I am the only escort I know of that has a big bulky camera hanging around my neck) and do their own thing.

When we reached Checkpoint Charlie, it barely resembled the cold and somber appearance it probably had years ago. Along the street, there is now brick in the asphalt, indicating where it was. The original US checkpoint station is in a museum somewhere, but in it’s place is a replica, sitting in the middle of what seems to be a high traffic downtown area. Flanking the street on either side are mostly fast food chains, coffee houses, and other businesses. One such collection of fast food places was entitled “Snackpoint Charlie” Hey Berlin… it’s kinda catchy, but it’s still a stretch. Still, I can’t think of a better one. Here I am in front of Checkpoint Charlie.

While contemplating who to give my camera to, I spotted a guy wearing a University of Texas sweatshirt. So, I asked him to take my picture. Turns out that he is in fact from Texas and plays football (yes, American football) in a professional German league. So he snapped my picture and then it was back on the bus. Here it is…

Afterwards we went to a large section of the wall that still stands as a historical reminder. It has been spray painted time and time again, but now the graffiti is more of a large painted mural. There are pictures of cars smashing through the wall, hands and torches, and other depictions of freedom and success. The wall seemed to go on forever, just where I was standing. At one time there was over seventy miles.

From there we went to other scenic places, had lunch at a grand hotel, and then went to a flea market. No kidding. The tour guide gave us half an hour to explore, and reminded us to keep a hand on our wallets at all times. So, what does one find at a flea market in Berlin? Honestly, it’s mostly door knobs and silverware. I have no idea why, but some booths carried nothing but brass door handles and forks by the dozen. Tempting, yes… but we already have lots of forks on the ship, and I couldn’t think of a use for a doorless handle, so off I went empty handed.

After a couple more hours of hopping on and off the bus it was back to the train station to get back to Warnemunde. For the two and a half hours it took to get back I was constantly checking my watch. I had a date with my German mistress, a certain Miss Bratwurst, and her sister, Miss Beer. I did not want to keep them waiting, but I was going to cut it close. Upon arrival in Warnemunde, I briskly hopped off the train, passengers be damned, and made my way to the beer garden next to the port. It was hard to miss, as it was blasting music (again, Irish jig type music… is there something I don’t understand?) and my nostrils were immediately filled with the smell of sizzling pig fat and grease.

Crew all aboard had already been called… but I have passenger status, and today was one of those days where that extra half hour was coming in handy. I plunked my euros on the counter, got my sausage and beer, and sat down to eat. I was sitting at a picnic table, staring through a chain link fence at the Dream. Passengers from my train were just now starting to arrive and pile on the gangway, (with hundreds of people coming on board at the same time, why do we only have one gangway? Hmm?) hands full of souvenirs. I just sat there and watched them pile on, my mouth full of sausage, mustard, and beer. I took several self portraits of myself sitting there, paying no mind to the stares I was getting from an old German lady who obviously did not see the importance in my eating sausage. After finishing my meal, I got up and made my way past customs and back onto the ship. I noticed that the beer had gone immediately to my head. In my haste to eat and drink everything in time to board, I had forgotten that I had very little to eat that day… I laughed at myself as I light headedly returned to my cabin… Yes I’m a cheap date, but it was a perfect end to a perfect day. And now a self portrait.

Resting up, I was ready to get out and explore Tallinn, Estonia one last time the following day. Like the night before, I was gearing up for an eating and drinking excursion through the city. My friends Tracey and Villam had already primed me for what was in store. First up we went for coffee at one of the many cafés in town… no big deal… You should already know that coffee in Europe is better than anything in the states, and loads and tons better than the warm dirty bilge water they serve on the Dream. After that it was on to The Brewery.

Located off of the main square on a small one way road was The Brewery. It was described to me by Tracey as a “Medieval Hooters.” And she was right. Mostly women worked there, and they all were dressed up in local historical garb, and had the look of a winch… Yeah, I said it… a winch. But I wasn’t there for the winches (they were there for me)… what I was there for was a honey beer and a large pizza. When in Estonia… Here is a few of my Shore Ex buddies, Tracey and I about to tear into an Estonian pizza.

After polishing off a huge pizza and a couple of ales, it was off to another restaurant. The name escapes me but the décor does not. Imagine walking into a three story home with nothing but long wooden tables and candles. They hardly had any electric light to speak of. We made our way to the second story, where again most of the light provided came from large wax candles placed on the walls and tables. Waitresses came out again in “olde” style garb, but without the winch motif. This time the object of my desire was cinnamon beer, served in a extra cold ceramic mug. To compliment my drink I had an order of bear. Yes, bear. I didn’t even know you could eat bear, aside from those bear claws you get at the doughnut shop. Man, that sounds awesome. And a big glass of chocolate milk… better throw in a jelly filled one to… And maybe one of those old fashioneds. You know, the ones that are more like cake than your usual glazed doughnut? Man… Where was I?

Right, bear… So, the bear came (on a plate, thank God… boy wouldn’t that be embarrassing) to the table, prepared as a stewed meat with some kind of thick gravy with cranberries. It was pretty gamey, but tender. I don’t think I would choose it over good ol’ steak, but it was worth it for the experience.

I am happy because the otherwise killer bear is subdued and stewed on my plate.

The weather was pretty awful that day, very cold and rainy, so we didn’t do much else but eat and drink, which as you can see is no problem by me. And that was all we did, as after we finished our beer, which by the way left no questions in my mind about the addition of cinnamon… If it wasn’t so dark I would have looked for sprinkles in the head… we headed back to the shuttle to take us back to the ship. Both Tallinn and Warnemunde were fantastic places to visit, and unfortunately there is much more to explore and see on foot, but that will have to wait for another time.

Next up on my Baltic hit list is St. Petersburg, Russia. Last time I trekked in and around the city escorting tours, counting heads, not learning much, and having my personal space constantly encroached in tight spaces other than on the cruise ship (which I will address somewhere down the line here). This time I chose instead to hitch with other crew and do our own thing. Now, the interesting thing here is that the pax have no choice in the matter. If they want to see St. Petersburg, they must buy a tour ticket. Otherwise they cannot get off of the ship. For the crew, NCL has arranged with the local port authority to issue us day visas, but in order to get them we have to buy a bus ticket which without we would not be able to leave the port either. Russia I have learned has thought of all the angels to make a buck.

So, on our first day I hopped on the bus with some of the guys in the band, and walked around. Ended up at the souvenir market just outside of the Church of Spilled Blood (the onion spired church where a lot of people got killed over time). Spent some time there, then off to lunch at a place our bass player Sam has frequented many times before. Nothing special, just some stroganoff and a small glass of Vodka. I don’t think I’ve ever had just plain vodka before, but when in Russia…

Again, the weather was intermittently crappy, so we weren’t long for St. Petersburg that day. So back to the ship we went, where I got changed and took an evening tour to go see the Russian Folkloric Show.

As a kind of opposite to the opera I saw the last cruise, the show was in a modern theatre attached to a hotel. Pretty nice setup actually, a steep yet shallow rake of seats, all red and plush… So, for two forty-five minute acts we were entertained by a live orchestra and many talented singers and dancers. They did all the stuff you’d expect like dropping to their feet and kicking in the air… actually that’s all I expected. But then they did other stuff like dancing with whips, some very complicated double dutch routines (something you just don’t picture Russian school kids doing in the playground during recess), and some acrobatics.

Now, I didn’t expect to know any of the music they were performing, when all of a sudden. Duh nuh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh duh nuh duh nuh nuh nuh… Duh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh duh nuh duh nuh nuh duh nuh duh nuh nuh nuh… Holy cow their singing the theme from Tetris! While they didn’t resemble blocks falling into place, my mind ran off into my childhood, never knowing I was so cultured. While the rest of the show was great, I did not get my Super Mario Brothers encore… which if I were to type out would go something like this: Duh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh! nuh… Duh nuh nuh duhnuhnuhnuh Duh nuh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh duh nuh nuh... I am sure one of you gets what I am saying. For the rest of you, I apologize.

The following morning the sun had discovered our corner of Russia and unchallenged by the clouds stayed with us for much of the day. I boarded the 10 AM shuttle, lucky to get on since the shuttle is merely a large van with seating for something like 20 people… Hello, we have over seven hundred crew… and since the shuttles run every hour and a half… welp, you need to get there early. In any case, went out with a lot of our guest entertainers like Richard and Josette (Our magic duo) Jose and Patty (our Observatory duo) and Andre (half of our ballroom duo). Went looking around the city, stopping briefly at the Church of Spilled Blood… again… fortunately Andre had other things to do so I tailed him around the city, stopping at a large park, and then at the sculpture garden of Peter the Great’s second home… the one after his meager cabin and before his monstrosity of his summer home. Supposedly the gate’s to this garden are one of the seven wonders of the world… I can’t tell you why or if it’s correct…

From there I went back to the shuttle drop off and met with my buddy Michael (trombone player) and we set out to visit my friends at the Museum Store, the place that I got left behind at last time. After getting us lost and going the long way, we made it, spotting Ivan the security guard (and the guy who got me back to my group) at the front door. After a healthy Russian handshake (ouch) he let us in, where all of my friends were inside and happy to see us. I introduced Michael to the group, and said that he was a singer as well. They oohed at him, and then I put him on the spot saying “Go on Mike, sing ‘em something!” Mike gathered himself up, and came out all aces, singing a very nice jazz song entitled “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” I followed with “A Foggy Day in London Town.” I had to laugh later… here we are… two guys in Russia, trying to impress Russian women with songs about London. It makes about as much sense as all the Irish pubs I’ve been to in Denmark (where live bands play American music). Still, we were received warmly and rewarded with fine Russian champagne. I’d tell you how it is, but security quickly snatched it from us upon our arrival to the ship… I guess I’ll know when I get back home, if it makes it back.

After the store, we just walked around, snapping pictures of all the canals and buildings. Have to say, St. Petersburg is a much nicer place on foot than by bus. While I don’t have any pictures, it is especially scenic at night, with all the buildings lit in different colors, and the bridges a bright white over the dark waters of the canals. Then it was back to the ship, catching the last shuttle of the day.

Now that I’ve told you what I did, let me tell you about my buddy Michael. He was supposed to get on the 10 AM shuttle (van) into town from the pier. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there is limited seating… a classic example of supply not meeting demand. So, he had to wait for the next shuttle. So, as I am riding into town, Michael and the others try and get a taxi out of the pier.

Remember how I told you about the Visas and Russian’s anglin’ for a quick buck? Well, the reason we have a shuttle for the crew is because the pier wouldn’t let us out without some compensation. So, now that the rules are in place, you should think that it’s the only way out. So here’s some of the guys in a taxi… They make it to the check point that leads to town. A Russian guard comes up and says they can’t leave… and she waits. So, my buddies, pressed for time, say “Okay, how much…” She just stares at them, waiting to see how much they had in their wallet. Not ready to be had, they gave up and turned around, headed back to the ship to wait for the next shuttle (van…).

Finally, a quick Russian language lesson… On the way back from the Folkloric show our tour guide taught us a Russian phrase. Say the word “Yellow,” then “Blue,” then “Vase” (but the hoity-toity way… B-ah-sz). Now run the words together… “Yellowbluevase.” You’ve just said “I love you” in Russian. I thought I would try my phrase out at the museum store, hoping our tour guide from the night before wasn’t teaching us to say something else. So, I say “Yellowbluevase.” It must have been right, as all the women there awwed at us, smiling. An American boy who was there with his parents, after seeing how the shoppies reacted asked me what I just said. After I told him he paused… looked around the room and thought to himself, then exclaimed (As the rest of the room watched him)… “Jesus!” Yes, little man… Jesus indeed.

Here are some random pictures from St. Petersburg:

Man hard at work selling Matruska dolls.

The afore mentioned Matruska dolls.

Now you can say "I Love You" and "Baskin Robins." Don't ask me how to pronounce that.

Lounging on the canal in St. Petersburg

Helsinki was not really a wasted day, but definitely a causal one. After participating in a very cold and drizzly boat drill, we headed out into town. Now, I guess out of all the ports in the Baltic I have visited, I have seen Helsinki the most… and after a few trips into town you kinda see all there is to see. This is because it doesn’t have the historical quality of so many of the other towns we visit. Instead it is a functioning city, without a lot of touristy destinations. So taking that into mind, and adding to it the fact that it was cold and rainy, we tucked into a coffee bar where the cappuccino was hot, the croissants buttery, and the internet fast and FREE. So, I checked mail and surfed the web most of the day… loading up the pictures for this blog ahead of time (since on the ship it’s slow and expensive). After I was done it was time for all aboard, and that’s about it for Finland!

Finally, the last port I’ll mention this time is Stockholm, Sweden. Beautiful place that I could spend hours more at… and since we only had four and a half to spend there that statement is doubly true. So, with map in hand Michael and I took a ferry over to the Vasa museum. Yes, the same Vasa museum that I couldn’t seem to find my way to during my previous visit. Well, this time fortune was shining on my otherwise lack of direction, and we made it there… This is what I know…

The Vasa was commissioned by Augusto somebody blah blah back something like 380 years ago. It was to be a three masted war ship. It took years to build her. Finally, on her inaugural voyage, Agusto sent her away to go to war, and she sailed out of the harbor. Five minutes later she swayed in the wind, righted herself, then two minutes later swayed again, this time capsizing herself over her starboard side, sinking to the bay floor. At the time, they tried to raise her twice, with no luck… all they could salvage was her cannons. Three hundred and thirty-three years later she was rediscovered and raised, successfully this time.

She was dry-docked and the museum was built around her, and for over twenty years they pieced her back together, and using a curing agent stopped the wood from aging (luckily too that Stockholm doesn’t have a lot of sodium in the water since it is so far from the ocean). They suspect the reason for her capsizing was the ballast weight came short of offsetting the huge masts that shot up from the deck. Slight oversight, I suppose. The museum itself is one huge room, dimly lit and a little humid, again to slow the aging process of the ship. The Vasa has to be the oldest intact vessel in the world, and it’s pretty incredible. There are several levels of the museum that give you different vantage points of the Vasa (you could not board her, however). I took lots of pictures, but they are still on my camera, and I am out in Copenhagen finishing this up... Check back later for pictures!

After a couple of hours there, Mike and I had a little over an hour to take the ferry back into town, grab a French hot dog and a beer, then make it back to the ship. My buddy Jarred (adage dancer) read that Stockholm is one of the most desirable places to live anywhere in the world, due to standard of living, air, money, etc… I believe it… It was a truly beautiful place.

And that brings us to the present! Still a few hours away from Denmark, where my plans are still up in the air, but will probably include going to a couple of pubs, and perhaps some more karaoke at Sam’s. Since we are there late at night, there really isn’t anything cultural to take in… and I’m okay with that.

As for life on board, lately I’ve felt like a target. I can’t seem to steer clear of pax that have no regard for space. I am constantly pushed aside in the Sport’s Bar, squashed in the elevators… oh the elevators… Tell me something… Am I the only one that doesn’t board an elevator when it’s going down and I want to go up? There are clear indicators that say whether it’s going up or down outside the elevator doors. Still, I’ll be heading up to 12 from 5, and someone gets on at 8 and pushes 4. I just stand there, eating my apple, watching the shock and horror pass over their face when they feel the elevator lift, instead of descend… Seriously, did you expect a detour?

Anyway, another interesting detail about this cruise is that we only have four kids on board… Two toddlers, and two teenagers. So, what are the odds of me eating dinner in the Sports Bar and having a screaming child sitting across from me? Well, two in over sixteen hundred you would guess (or 1 in 800 if you did your math correctly). Nope, not even close… so far it’s been one to one… Dammit.

And I reckon that’s about it for this installment. I’ll be visiting Oslo, Norway after Copenhagen, so one more new port before heading back to Dover and laying siege to the Mediterranean. Until then…

Keep on Livin’ The Dream.

Your pal,

Michael Lamendola
(On the bow of the ship in the Keil Canal)

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