Friday, September 14, 2007

The European Dream Part Three - From Russia With Love

Before we begin, did you read Part Two? This is a direct continuation of my previous post. To get the whole experience, and read about Germany, Estonia, and my first day in Russia, CLICK HERE... Now the bus is full... we go.

When we last spoke I had finished my first night in St. Petersburg, Russia. I had visited Kathryn's Palace, the Hermitage Museum, and gone to see Swan Lake, and getting yelled at in the process. Well, I made it back to the ship late that night, and with swans dancing in my head I slept.

The next morning I was ready for another venture into St. Petersburg, this time escorting the Imperial Tour. Once again I grabbed my paddle, and made my way to the bus. Now, my paddle has a unique number on it. This number matches the number on the front of the bus, and also matches the number on the sticker that’s placed on all the pax on this certain bus on this tour (since a tour can have more than one guide and bus, you see). So, I get to the pier, and my bus, number 9 has already left. The words start ringing through my head… “When Bus is Full We Go.” My God she was right.

So, I end up escorting group number 12, all the while my paddle says number 9. So, throughout the day I look like a grade school flunky, holding up my paddle (which says 12) and shouting “number 9!” Anyway…

Our first stop was Peter The Great’s Summer House. Of course, the sheer amount of square footage would allow you to park a Boeing 747 inside, but to Pete it was just a cozy place to visit when in town. This time our tour did not include the highly ineffective headphone system, so we had to rely on hearing our tour guide. And the thirty-four pax (remember that number… thirty-four… for later) pretty much could hear everything she was saying. As for little old me? The stupid curly headed child in the back of the line with the number that doesn’t match the group? Couldn’t hear a thing… Why? Well, the rooms in Pete’s place were a good deal smaller than that of Kathryn’s Hacienda, so I was usually stuck behind the door jam that separated the room our tour guide was in, and the tour guide behind me was in. So, while my group was learning about the room they were in, all I could hear was the tour guide talking about the room behind my tour (the one that I was in). So, no problem, I’ll just learn about the room’s one behind my group. Oh, wait… there’s the French tour guide with her small group talking right in my ear. So lets recap:

My tour is in the room in front of me… can barely hear them
The tour behind me is in the room I’m in… can hear them okay
The French lady who has never heard of personal space and is banging her elbows into my ribs and camera… loud and clear.

So, Pete’s Palace was nice… nay, great. I’d show you a picture, but seriously, if you’ve seen one Russian Palace, you’ve seen them all. Just refer back to Kat’s Club House. Afterwards we went outside and walked the expansive grounds with lots of fountains. If you were ever late to one of Pete’s parties, you would get to see a special fountain. He would march you outside, telling you there’s something you just have to see. As you walked down a certain path, he would turn on a hidden fountain drenching his late guests. Turns out Peter the Great was also an ass hole… This much I gathered. Here’s a picture of the most famous series of fountains on the grounds.

From Peter’s place we boarded a hydro jet boat and crossed over into town… I slept (Now that’s STYLE). The boat dropped us back in the heart of St. Petersburg (which has a large canal running through the city… and while picturesque, makes little room for the highly congested roads that flank it. Once again it was time for lunch, and this time the food was passable enough that there was no need for entertainment. After lunch we got back on the bus for a city tour.

Now, if you have been skimming up to this point (and hey, this is a long one), stop. Probably my favorite story of this contract thus far is coming up.

So, we travel to a scenic overlook of St. Petersburg’s canal, then some kind of navy ship that did something worth talking about, and then over to The Peter and Paul Fortress. In the Fortress was the Peter and Paul Church, which is now just a relic and tourist attraction. Here’s a picture.

Inside it was what you would expect from a church in this area… busy artwork on the walls, high ceilings and an ornate altar, important people buried there, blah blah blah. But at one point our tour guide made a turn, and by the time I got together the remaining pax, we had lost her. So, I told them (about twelve in number) to wait at a certain place, and I went looking for her. After not finding her for about ten minutes, I start marching them back to the bus. Halfway there we find her… a little frazzled but okay, so we get back on the bus and go to a designated shop that she has been telling us about off and on all afternoon.

So, we get there, and all the pax are filing inside, and I approach our guide and confirm the amount of time we had there. She says four O’clock, but added that she really means four ten, giving her enough time to get them all together before departing. Okay, I think, four ten. So, I start looking around the store, which is full of Faberge eggs, those Matruska dolls that stack inside themselves, and other neat things like a Stalin Zippo. (Which is probably better than a Stalin Harpo, I suppose). Then I start thinking about buying a trinket, and so I start looking. After being helped by one of the shoppies, I decide on one. I take it to the counter, and just as I am pulling out my plastic, I see a bus leave out of the corner of my eye. The lady at the counter says:

Does it matter that your bus is leaving?

Ehh… maybe a little… I figured I’m not going anywhere for awhile, so I complete my transaction. After stuffing the receipt in my pocket I start to wonder just how I’m getting back on the bus. Fortunately this happens all the time, so they say, and the shop had my guide’s cell phone in a list. As they were calling her, my mind ran over the scenario that played through, leaving me there. Our guide, like the guide I had the previous day, makes a head count of all the pax on the bus… Thirty-four. Guess what dumb schmuck with the wrong number on his paddle is the unofficial thirty-five?


So, they call her. Meanwhile the security guard there, a stocky blond guy in his mid twenties, asks me what I do on the ship. “I’m a singer” I say. And every girl that worked in the store went “Oooh!” And deep down inside, I made the same noise… just not as girly… but maybe in the same Russian dialect. So, they ask me what I like to sing… “Musical Theatre, jazz…” So since I had time to kill, and since I have always wanted to be an international singing star, I suggest they request a song. After figuring out they liked Sinatra, I sang them a little “Funny Valentine.” That day I swooned five Russian girls. Afterwards I got a great big box of Russian chocolate, and the admiration of a country. Upon my return to the states I’m taking my five souvenir shoppies and my smelly dance buddy and moving to Utah.

So, back to the task at hand. My tour bus is gone and I need to catch up. It was decided that rather than waste the time of everyone on board the bus and swing them back towards me, that instead I catch a ride with Ivan, the security guard, to our next destination. So, I hop in Ivan’s white Toyota Camry, first by trying to get into the driver’s seat, then realizing that I sit on the opposite side, and start our drive. He flips on some Russian rock music, and we talk about stuff. He asks me what I think of Russia so far. I said that St, Petersburg is more colorful than I had originally thought, but that y’all are quick tempered and gruff. I figured saying “you smell” would be taking it too far, and Ivan was a big guy (also, I should note that no one in the store, including Ivan, smelled). Then I asked him what he thought of Americans.

My answer was not what I expected. We quickly glossed over the Americans, which he seemed to have a tolerance for. It was the Chinese that he was more animate about. The Chinese steal Ivan said, in his thick glotteral Russian. He said that they were easy to chase down, however, so at least he is doing his job. He then went on to describe the Chinese in finer detail, but unfortunately this is not the correct forum. I received an E mail from the Russian souvenir store that night… it read:

SUBJECT: From Russia With Love

Dear Michael!

We were excited with your beautiful voice today. That was the best impression of the
day. So we would like to meet you again. Please don't forget our address: 7/5
Mytninskaya emb., Saint-Petersburg, Russia. Phone: +7 (812) 233 44 83 Hope to see
you soon ;)

Best wishes,
"Museum" from Julia

It seems that when in Russia I will always have a gift shop to call home. Anyway, after driving through the congested and busy streets of St. Petersburg with Ivan as my tour guide, we arrived at my destination, The Church of the Spilled Blood, somehow ahead of my delinquent parent like tour guide and bus.

This church was the first landmark I had seen that had the colorful onion spires that everyone expects to see (including the poor pax who so desperately wanted to go to Sitka back in 2005... There were none there, I promise you.). Here are some pictures of the church.

The church gets it’s name from people like Alexander, who was slain there many years ago. That’s all I know about it. Our tour didn’t go inside, and even if it did… well, you’ve heard my excuses. Instead our tour had the option of exploring the church on their own, or walking through the maze of souvenir stands. I took another route and made my way to a bridge overlooking the church and the canal. It seems as though Russia is the marriage capital of the world (Vegas are you listening?) Everywhere I looked there was another happy bride and groom. I could literally count eight newlywed couples in my immediate vicinity. Some where kissing while their party jumped up and down and yelled something very close to “Vodka.” Others were having their portrait taken in front of the canal… All the while the air was thick of cheap champagne, and the bottles causing the odor were lining the street, dozens and dozens of green bottles… like an army guarding the curb.

Finally, my day in Russia came to an end. We got back on the bus, and back on the ship. My mind tells me that we had a show that night… Country Gold… but I can’t be too sure. At this point I have lost all track of day and date. When you’re work week is twelve days long, you literally lose track. Oh, and since that day I get random passengers coming up to me and saying “Hey! You made it back!” Yes, yes I did. And the box of Russian chocolate? Delicious.

Next up is Helsinki, Finland. This marks the completion of all the port cities for me, since Helsinki was where I joined the dream some twelve days prior. Now I had my name down to escort tours, but I took it off the list. I found that when I escort these tours I don’t get quite the same experience I do when I go out with friends and follow our noses. So, that’s what I did instead. Over the course of this cruise I met and befriended an English woman named Fay, who was here with her mother, step-father, and grandmother. She and I decided to do Helsinki, and the upcoming Finland together, so we got off the ship and with map in hand followed our noses.

Helsinki is an interesting city because it doesn’t have the historical beauty of other port cities like Tallin, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg. Instead it has modernized its architecture, while the older buildings have been updated with neon signs and ticker tapes. But what Helsinki does offer is a modern city feel with the accessibility of a small walking town. So Fay and I went off and explored, seeing random buildings and statues, taking pictures here and there. Here are some:

Found our way to the church on the rock, which sits high above the city, then to the farmer’s market that I explored that first rainy evening I arrived, and then back on the ship. And now that I think of it… it was Helsinki night that we had Country Gold… Yeah, that’s it… I think.

Helsinki, like many other cities I’ve visited here, has a large biking population. Whether it be because of saving money (Copenhagen charges new car buyers 200% tax… yes… Two Hundred Percent) or exercise, you see a lot of folks in power suits and nice dresses riding their Schwinns to work. They also get their own sidewalk in which to ride safely out of the way of the cars and trucks on the road. The sidewalk is marked with a picture of a bicycle, and they reoccur every so often, so people won’t wander off of the sidewalk and into the way of the cyclists.

So, imagine two complete idiots walking around pointing at trees and taking pictures of statues unaware of where they should and should not be walking. In rides an older gentleman on his bike, stops behind us, and yells at us in Finnish. We immediately jump over on the sidewalk, which I now notice also is a different color than the bike track, and he rides past us grumbling, waving his fist in the air, and pointing at our sidewalk.

Stockholm was much the same as Helsinki. Got off the boat, Fay and I, and with our trusty map looked around. Now, as I understand it, Stockholm is made up of sixteen main islands. Right off of our ship is old town, which is a small island with lots of narrow streets, shops, cafes, restaurants, and hidden courtyards… all looked over by the sky piercing steeple or clock tower, all with aged bronze and gothic undertones. Now, she and I had heard of the Vasa museum. The Vasa was some big deal for her time… A large three masted sailing vessel, probably a couple hundred years old or more (I don’t know the exact date for a reason… hold on). On her inaugural voyage, they broke the champagne across her bow, she slid into the water, and sank. And there she was, under the water for many years, until Stockholm decided to dig up their shame and put it in a museum.

You can see the masts of The Vasa sticking out of the building they built around it. Supposedly the building is kept at a certain temperature and humidity to keep the wood from ageing any more than it already has. Did I mention that we wanted to go see this museum? We had a map, and were kinda following our feet, when we ran into an English couple. We asked them directions and they said “Keep the water on your right” and “Don’t cross the bridge.” So we thanked them and went on our way. And then we realized it would take forever to walk this way, and if we crossed the bridge and put the water on our left, we would get there quicker.. So we did. Amazing thing, when you cross the bridge and put the water to your left… You end up ACROSS THE BAY from the museum. So we got a nice picture of the Vasa from across the bay.

From there it was back to the old town island, in which the overcast sky we had been under all day opened up and dropped buckets of rain on us. We ducked into a neighboring cafĂ© and had a quick lunch, then back to exploring and sightseeing. Not much else of interest happened that day, just random clock towers, churches, and such. Still, Stockholm is one of the prettiest ports we visit, so here’s a few more pictures.
After leaving Stockholm, we spend most of the next day at sea, arriving in Copenhagen, Denmark, at around 6 pm. Again, this is a nice port due to the fact that we have an overnight, and unlike Russia you can walk off the ship and into town where there are bars and restaurants ready for you. You do have to get used to paying quite a bit for your beer though, and most everything else for that matter. A basic pint of Carlsberg is nine bucks. On the subject of Carlsberg, a Danish beer, they have an advertising slogan that is the most conservative of any that I have seen. While other products are “the best at this,” or “number one in that,” Carlsberg… well…
Tonight I tore it up with Villam and Tracey in town, starting at a Italian restaurant, then hitting a couple of bars. The first was an Irish pub… Not sure why, but there are lots of Irish pubs in the area. Anyway, we started ordering a couple of rounds, listening to a guy playing American rock and roll on his guitar. Let me get this straight for you… Here I am in DENMARK in an IRISH bar listening to AMERICAN music. I think the world is a melting pot. If that wasn’t amazing enough, the table next to us ordered beer service, and you won’t believe what they got.

That’s a lot of beer. I think the tap actually had a cooling device in it as well. From there we went to another Danish bar, well… Sam’s bar actually. Sam’s bar is decorated like an old pizza parlor, with those brown and orange lights that hang down from the ceiling and stuff. Oh, Sam’s is also a Karaoke bar. We couldn’t decide what was better, hearing the Danish sing American tunes or Danish songs in their native tongue. Still, we all had a great time, throwing down more local brew, singing a bit, and doing a bit of general cavorting. Then the table next to us offered a shot. I gladly accepted, and after a toast put a whole bunch of something awful in my mouth. I spit it back into the glass, my mouth swimming with the flavor of pure ginger. They said it was some caustic Russian liquor, and laughed because their friend just had a shot and ran to the bathroom within seconds. I love making new friends.

The next morning Fay and I stepped out for some breakfast and a walk around all the statues and churches. That afternoon was at sea, and so I decided to visit the gym. So, there I was, getting all big and stuff, when I look out of the corner of my eye and see another older gentleman in the gym with me. Now, keep in mind that this is not a 24 Hour Fitness by any stretch… It’s really a walk in closet with a view and some weights. So, it was just he and I in the gym when he took off his pants… Yeah… He decided that working out in jeans was a little too warm, and that shorts would be more comfortable, so he changed. And I left.

Also, during the one of the last sea days I was called upon to sing a couple songs in a Latitudes party. Latitudes members are frequent cruisers with NCL and a few times a cruise they get special parties thrown for them… Stuff like getting to meet the Captain, champagne receptions, and on this particular day they were treated to a crew talent show. For whatever reason some of the crew backed out last minute, so a singing emergency went into play, and I was contacted. Since I travel with my Sammy Davis charts, I was ready. Worked up a couple of numbers with the band, and performed that afternoon. Did the numbers “Eee-O-Eleven” and “Birth of the Blues.” It seems as though now I will be able to perform each time they have one, so about once a cruise. So hopefully my good will and talent will make its way back to NCL HQ, where they’ll find out what a neat guy I am (Sue Carper, are you reading this?).

Which brings us to the present. It’s the last sea day of the current Baltic cruise. Tomorrow we hit Dover and then we’ll start it all over again, running the Baltic one last time. Actually this next cruise will mark the last Baltic run for the Dream, which has been cruising the Baltic every summer since 1993 (with the exception of her Alaska run in 2005). In less than a year, our Dream will be sold over to The Orient Line, where she will be gutted and turned into a gambling ship. Have no fear, though, I am sure she will still belch forth in all her foul smelling glory. As for me, I am going to belch forth and get me some dinner.

But before I go, one last bit of information. Somewhere in the middle of this cruise I get an E mail from the theatre company I was auditioning for. You’ll recall that before I came out for this contract I was in the middle of callbacks for the lead in The Full Monty. Well, the theatre company that was producing it just closed its doors, so there will be no Monty to speak of. Its not often you get complete validation for a decision.

Keep on Livin’ The Dream.

Your pal,

Michael Lamendola (with my new friend Fay)

1 comment:

  1. Heather Chamberlin9/17/2007 10:46 PM

    I love the picture of the mustang! Not for its framing, or its quality, but because its a beauty of a classic in Russia! But I'm sure you already knew that! ;)