Friday, September 14, 2007

The European Dream Part Two - When Bus Is Full We Go!

At the moment I am sitting on Deck 11 forward, which is an odd section of the ship due to the fact that it doesn’t travel the full length from bow to stern. The stage’s grid hangs where the deck would have gone otherwise. I only say this because our Italian restaurant, La Trattoria, is located on Deck 11 aft. Now, the reason I am sitting in an elevator corridor is because it’s the only place the JARs can hang before and in betweens shows. So, while we’re sitting here, the elevators will open, and people will walk out, expecting to see the Trattoria, or a walkway to it, or something. But instead they walk out, look around and get back in the elevator. Sometimes we tell them where they are… other times we can’t be bothered. So far, as I write this, it’s happened three times… And I wasn’t bothered.

So, how’s life in the Baltic? Not bad. As of today I have made a complete tour, having visited Helsinki for the first time since I arrived something like twelve days ago (I think, none of us really know what day it is half the time, and don’t even try to know the date). Good news is that once we return to Dover, something like five days from now, we only have one more run in The Baltic, then the go to the Mediterranean for a cruise. So, things will never get old around here.

When I last wrote to y’all I was about to sail into Dover, signing with a dramatic photo of me trying to blow up The Dream. That was taken at Dover Castle, situated on The White Cliffs of Dover (huh, what a coincidence). During World War II the English used the castle as a defensive position, and built tunnels underground (adding to tunnels that had already been there a couple hundred years) for barracks, hospitals, radios and other war stuff. They didn’t want you to take pictures while you’re inside. So, here’s a picture (I’m a rebel… Oh yeah)

It was a pretty interesting tour, but as I am walking the castle grounds to get back down to the town I smack my forehead as I realize I just visited a really old castle so I could look at a bunch of stupid tunnels… Never went into the castle, just underneath it… ugh. So, next time I hit Dover I’m going to visit the castle and actually go inside it… instead of under it. Masters in Musical Theatre indeed.

I actually posted my last blog while sitting in a pub called Price Charles. Did you know the English drink beer at 11 AM and yell while they watch soccer? Yeah, me too… After finishing up I boarded the ship and headed for my first port, Warnemunde, Germany (The U in Warnemunde should have the two dots on it, but I can’t seem to find that key here).

As this was my first time in this port, I decided to take a stroll around the town with Tracey. About the time she and I hit town, which closer to the port resembles a small village, the skies opened up. So we ducked inside a local coffee shop to wait the weather out. Villam (shore ex) stopped by and joined us, and while we were having coffee a trio of German school girls sat down next to us. All about 9 or 10 years old, they seemed fascinated with us, starting with a conversation, then asking to borrow a cell phone, and finally asking Villam to help them with their math homework.

After trying to figure out what the problem was saying (no simple algebra here, it was one of those problems where a train was going somewhere and there was wind, hills, cows, and other stuff impeding its progress. Thank God real trains don’t have these problems… wait, do we still use trains? What a long parenthetical sentence this has become… it’s almost like it’s own paragraph… I should start over)

So, after Villam helped the girls with their math homework, we set out on a little sight seeing tour of Warnemunde… or at least we gave it our best shot. Every time we got outside it would start raining… head inside and the sun would come out. Well, in any case, from the coffee house we went to a bar overlooking the German coast. After another round of coffee and beer, we then tried the foot travel thing again, this time walking along a small canal where we were flanked on one side by expensive sail boats and the usual restaurant and souvenir shops on the other… oh, and more rain. So we decided to get the Hell out of Warnemunde.

So, we decided to get on a train and travel to the neighboring city of Rostoff. When there we walked up and down the streets, stopping in clothing stores and coffee shops, eating some sausage from a street vendor (which was served with some red curry… interesting), and touring a church. The church had a clock that, through a very large face, can tell the day, date, and time for something like 17 years, and while the clock face has changed over time, it’s been telling time and date for over three hundred years. Here’s the clock in question. Below it is a picture of one of the main streets of Rostoff.

Once we were full of old clocks and sausage (Old Clocks and Sausage is my new band), we trained it back to Warnemunde, where I stopped at the last chance bar and sausage house, enjoying one last brew (or two), some sausage, and some sort of Jagermister shot. So basically my first day in Germany was more or less a laid back locals tour than a huge learning experience. For next time I am trying to get on a tour to Berlin…

So, after a sea day we arrived in the city of Tallin in the country of Estonia. I got to escort my first tour here, which is why I didn’t learn anything… let me explain. The job of an escort is to stay at the back of the line, count heads, and make sure nobody gets left behind… Otherwise you get to enjoy a tour. Only thing is while you get to enjoy the bus ride over and all the locations, you usually don’t get to hear anything the guide is saying. This is because you’re constantly in he back, waiting for one person to take a picture for the umpteenth time (which is the roman numeral for 42). By the time I finally catch up to our guide, I hear “Okay, on to our next point of interest.” So, all I can say about Tallin is that it has many points of interest… or so I’ve overheard.

Tallin, from what I do know, is a beautiful old city with wandering narrow roads that open into courtyards with old, old buildings on all sides that are stone and between four and five stories high, which a nice sprinkling of churches and clock towers thrown in for good measure. Alas, poor Estonia is a new country, having passed through the hands of Denmark, Germany, and Russia (and probably some others if I bothered to write down some notes). If I recall correctly, Estonia has been a country for only seventeen years. Here are some pictures of Tallin…

Now, the scenery is nice, the buildings are old, but so is most of The Baltic… so what sets Estonia apart? A garlic restaurant. After my tour, I found my way to Balthazar’s, where once I checked my coat and joined the group I sat down to a serving dish full of four different kinds of garlic. Pickled, curried, roasted, and one other… and not a little bit either, but whole cloves. So, I was suggested the steak, which was garlicky, and followed it with some garlic ice cream (which, I have to say didn’t taste much like garlic at all). Most of the JARs were in attendance, since if we all smelled like garlic then we would have less of a chance of offending. Still, I think we gave the Dream a run for her money in the smell department. Power in numbers.

So, with the smell of garlic oozing from our pores we sailed away from Estonia and the next day arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. Our parking space in Russia is probably the most filthy, industrial port we have ever tied down to. From deck 12, you can see miles of container boxes, cranes, tons of scrap metal piled in heaps and collectively rusting, old dirty buildings, and random cargo dotting the lots (like forty some odd blue tractors… safely the largest group of blue tractors I have ever seen in one place).

Now, Russia requires a Visa to step on shore, and basically the only way for pax to get one is to book a tour. Seeing as how we are in Russia for two whole days, good ol’ NCL has ‘em right where they want ‘em (I’m pointing with one hand into the palm of the other hand, all the while typing this with my elbows). So, good ol’ No Cash Left is booking lots of tours, since most folks don’t want to hang out on the ship and stare at the shipyard for two days.

As for the crew, in order for us to get off the ship we either have to escort a tour or buy a “tour ticket” which is nothing more than a crew bus pass that confirms a technicality and allows us off the vessel. This time around I escorted a couple of cruises, the first day being “Glorious St. Petersburg.” So, after I grabbed my NCL paddle with our group number on it, I made my way to the bus. Now, these crafty Russians know how to make a buck, and pretty much every indoor attraction you attend requires you to pay for the privilege of taking pictures. It’s not a huge amount… something like five bucks here and four bucks there, but come on… Could you imagine paying nearly two hundred dollars for a tour, then getting nickeled and dimed to take pictures? Sheesh… Okay, I’m off the soap box now (oh… soap… Russians don’t use it… it’s true).

So first off I visited Kathryn’s Palace. All of us were armed with these listening devices that had headphones and a receiver that linked to a microphone our tour guide was wearing. Unfortunately the range of these suckers is something like twenty feet, and there were thirty-eight people in our group. So, once again I learned nothing about the places I went, and unfortunately neither did the pax in attendance. Still, the palace was opulent… overly opulent actually. It had been restored since it was bombed to Hell during one of Russia’s skirmishes with somebody… I’d tell you who but I never heard. There were great dance halls, and sitting rooms, and receiving rooms, and rooms and rooms and rooms… each one just like the last. Lots of portraits of Russian people and gold leafed wood carvings and stuff.

There is an unique room where it’s decorated in amber from floor to ceiling… I’d show you the picture but the sticker I bought that allowed me to take pictures in Kathryn’s palace didn’t apply there. Something about pictures in the gift shop drifted through my headphones, surprisingly loud and clear. Oh well. Here’s some random pictures of Kathryn’s Palace… Oh and I don’t know who she is, but I am sure she was well liked in her community… well, she probably owned the entire community, and the one next to it come to think of it.

After the palace it was time to drop the passengers at a place to buy Russian souvenirs and then to lunch. When some of the passengers didn’t show up immediately to roll call, I was able to shout the pun “Come on, we’re all Russian to lunch!” I am a comic God. Once assembled at lunch, we were entertained by a local Russian folkloric group, playing the accordion, singing and dancing. This was mostly to distract you from the beef stroganoff they found somewhere to feed us with. At one point, I was pulled up to dance with one of the girls. We slapped our knees and ankles, yelling and turning in circles. Cute girl too. Smelled like she had been running track in a burlap sack for a week straight. Here’s a picture of my new Russian bride.

Afterwards it was back on the bus to hit an art museum back in town, the Hermitage. Once a palace, it is now three stories of sculpture and painted canvas. Once again I was chasing after the group, sheep dogging the lolly-gagging pax (where the Hell did that come from?). The best part of the museum was a section that had lots of Roman-esque statues, mostly of naked nymphs, men, and warriors. Then there was the equally impressive third story, which housed impressionist paintings from the likes of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and others. And wouldn’t you know it, when I get to a really old painting of a Boston terrier reclining in a chair and smoking a cigar, my camera runs out of juice… but trust me, it was a definite precursor to the genre defining Dogs Playing Poker. The rest of the museum that I saw was mostly Jesus and Mary type paintings… no big shocker really.

Afterwards it was back on the bus to finish our tour by dropping us back at the ship. Once there I caught my breath for a few seconds, slapped on my suit, and got back on the bus to take in some Russian ballet. Oh, did I mention the Russians are also stereotypically cranky? Yep… Unfortunately everything we’ve heard about these folks seems to be true. I, of course, had a comp ticket to the ballet, and was trying to board a certain bus to be with some friends. The local tour guide was taking tickets at the front, and I give her mine. She looks at it, then gruffly barks in her sultry Russian drawl “NO! No more comps! We have three comps on bus already! You go to OTHER BUS!” She’s just a little Russian slice of heaven.

So, I make it to another bus. Once on board this new bus, a different, yet equally unstable Russian woman starts to yell at a passenger who was on the bus, but her husband was not. “WHEN BUS IS FULL WE GO! WE DO NOT WAIT! YOU NEED TO GET ON OTHER BUS!” The lady, a little older, seemingly American, and with some tenacity of her own, just scooted over to the seat by the window, putting an extra foot and a half buffer between her and our guide. The guide huffed back outside, and in a couple of minutes the husband in question arrived. Once underway, our guide got on the bus’ microphone and raked us all over the coals about the idea of when bus is full we go, we do not wait! I think we should all live by such a creed. I think I’m going to get one of those AA type coins made for myself… and it’ll say “When Bus Is Full We Go.” Deep stuff.

Plus, the ballet wasn’t half bad either. Actually, it was very, very good. We went into a largish theatre… not as opulent as some of the other things I had seen in Russia. Kind of a cross between a town auditorium and a historical theatre. But we got to see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with a real live Russian orchestra in the pit, and real live Russian dancers on stage. Five acts and two intermissions, it was superbly done. The only odd thing was during the entire show, a lot of folks in the audience felt compelled to take pictures, with flash, during the ballet. I don’t know whether to say stupid Americans or not, since our ship is very international at the moment. Our intro to the JAR shows is pre-recorded in four different languages, for example. Still you would think that no matter where you’re from, you’d know better.

Congratulations! You've reached the half way point of this blog. Since the cruises are longer, I have more to write about that usual. So, grab a sandwich and check back tomorrow for the second half!

Keep on Livin' the Dream.

Your pal,

Michael Lamendola (navagating the Keil Canal... more on that later)

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