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)

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 café 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)

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)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The European Dream Part One - Embarkation

It seems like this is the way I started my chronicles of The Dream last Spring… At least as far as my immediate location is concerned. Here I am, sitting in The Stardust Lounge, located on deck 10 forward. Since it’s the middle of the day, NCL is hard at work paying bills by hosting the umpteenth bingo for the cruise. As a matter of fact, someone just won, playing “Texas T”, a whopping one hundred and seventy big bingo dollars. But, outside, its much different from the Spring. Instead of sunny Mexico, it’s overcast and I’m somewhere between Denmark and England.

You might be saying “Huh? I thought you just moved to Los Angeles!” Yes, I did… What can I say, I’ve never been to the Baltic. And it’s been a few years since I’ve seen the Mediterranean. How did this all happen? Surprisingly, this time the story is a little unique.

First of all, for those of you who have known about my previous contracts on board The Dream, and even way back when I was on The Silver Cloud, understand that The Jean Ann Ryan Company is not known for their timing, punctuality… generally speaking they don’t give a fella a lot of notice. This contract, like two of the previous three I have worked, came to be a last minute affair.

When I was on board last Spring, I tried to extend my contract to The Baltic. And why not? I had nothing pressing to get home to, the shows would be (as they will for all eternity) the same, and I would be seeing some new places. But I never heard back from JAR HQ, so I made my way back home, packed up a few boxes, and moved to Los Angeles. I start auditioning for everything I could, and using the real world as my classroom, began my journey through LA 101. Included in the program are clinics in coping with traffic, parking, and patience.

Still, I was making some headway, doing a student film and teaching a series on how to play pool, which can be seen here: POOL. I had also sent out almost three hundred headshots to prospective agents, and after meeting with several (somehow a 3 to 300 ratio is pretty good) I found one that I liked. I had just made an appointment to go back in and discuss headshots when I get the phone call from Florida.

“Michael, it’s Kevin. What is your availability like for the next couple of months?” At least that’s what my voice mail told me. My E mail said the same thing. Now, I had already heard through the grape vine what had happened on the Dream… Two of the singers on board, the same two who were part of the cast that we handed over to back in the Spring, were not enjoying their time in The Baltic. So, they did what anybody would do in their situation. They started mailing all their stuff home until they had just enough to get by, and then walked off the ship, never to be seen again. No kidding.

But what about passports? Well, usually the ship holds on to them, but in some ports that we hit, its required that we have them on hand when in the country. And out of the few that require this, Germany is the easiest to fly out of. And that’s what they did… Walked off the ship, passport in hand, and flew back home. No two week notice… just went AWOL. So that put the cast on board in a bind, which put JAR HQ in a bind.

So I got the call, and when I was told that I’d be earning the same as I always have, for the past few years, I said no thanks. Yep, I almost didn’t go, on a matter of principle. I mean, I was in the middle of callbacks for The Full Monty, just joined an Improv Troupe, and had more auditions lined up. Still, since most of my contracts have been a matter of me dropping everything to save someone’s ass… Well, I felt that my stock had gone up… I spent that night wondering if I had made the right decision, and the next morning when JAR HQ called me back, this time the numbers made sense. And, as usual, I was on a plane in 48 hours.

Flew from San Diego (that’s where I store my car) to San Francisco, to Frankfurt, and finally in Helsinki, something like eleven hours ahead of the west coast. Had no problem with any of the flights, and actually had enough of a lay over in Germany that I got out of the airport and explored the city a little. Pictures would normally be here, but since my camera was in my suitcase (somewhere in the belly of a plane) all I had was my camera phone, which has no cord to my computer at the moment. But I went out with a couple of people I met on the plane ride over and explored a little, seeing an old church, a river, and a city square… all with my guitar strapped to my back.

“Guitar on your back? Why?” Well, I thought that since I’d have a fair amount of time on my hands in between shows, that I would bring it along and play. So I carried it on, with no problems, on my trip. I only say this because I did actually have one problem. Getting back into the airport in Frankfurt was pretty easy looking. Short lines, go through and they want to check my guitar bag… no sweat. So I unzip it, they look at it, then they unzip the side compartment… leaf through it, then ask me to wait in the room. Uh oh.

Well, here’s the problem, and your first picture (I know, I’m kinda chatty today… did you skim?)
Seems as though I could use one of these strings to choke someone, cut wrists, or… I dunno… STRING A GUITAR. Plus, the fact that it has a drawing of dynamite didn’t ease matters much. Slight oversight, I suppose. In any case, once they realized that I was an idiot they let me go, with all six strings intact.

So, back to Finland. I arrived in Helsinki after traveling for 30 hours. Yes, I was beat, but it was only six in the evening. I figured I had a good chance of beating the jet lag if I could make it until 10 that night. So, I got out my jacket and camera, and started walking towards town.
Here is my first view of Helsinki from outside my hotel room.

Walking from my hotel, I see a church in the distance.

Here I am standing outside the bay and the downtown shopping district...

A government building by the bay.

In the downtown shopping district.

Basically I just followed my nose. With no tour guide, I just walked wherever, trying to remember where it was I came from. Saw an old church (the second of many I imagine), the downtown shopping district, a small marina, and many statues. It was getting cold and rainy outside (10 degrees Celsius… cold) so I made my way back towards the hotel, stopping in a pub for a night cap that would ensure I would get a good night’s sleep. After a dark and heavy beer I trudged back to the Hotel, and slept the trip off.

The next morning I strolled through the farmer’s market, had breakfast, then got in a taxi and headed towards the Dream. I immediately knew that even though the itinerary was vastly different, the overall feel of The Dream would be exactly the same. This was because outside my hotel were two cruise ships. They were docked in such a place that offered a five minute walk into downtown, where I went exploring the night before. The Dream, as we all know, prefers the remote parking lot, usually one found in a less aesthetically pleasing industrial area. I laughed out loud when I saw her bow sticking out between my view of stacked container boxes and small water towers. I had arrived.

I’ve pretty much gotten the embarkation process down. Get on, hand over my medical (yes, the one that I didn’t have last time… having one of these makes getting on the ship a lot easier), get my bags checked for liquor (if there is a next time I want to put a gun in there, just so they can see if its one of those trick guns that hides scotch in the barrel), go to personnel for my ID badge and name tag, and finally move back into good ol’ 5269... Last door on deck five port side. The room was almost as I had left it, and after a little unpacking I was good to go.

Got refitted for my costumes, which as usual are way too big for me… it seems that the guy I’m replacing is something like twice my size. Still, Michelle, our costumer, got them all fitting fine. Now, since I’m joining the ship mid cruise, we had Country Gold the next night. So, we have a midnight rehearsal. Since this is my third time living the Dream, I have practically sang every song in every show. This time around, I’m singing most of what I did back in the Spring, and some of what I did back in 2005.

Country Gold was a piece of cake, singing nearly every note I did previously… with the exception of a couple of different harmonies. Did two shows that night, and had an awesome time in the process. Oh, and that day I also got a couple of hours in Stockholm, Sweden. With just enough time to get some lunch and coffee, I met up with my good buddy Tracey (who has been a part of my previous two contracts on The Dream singing) and her friend Villam (Shore Ex Manager from South Africa). Snapped some pictures along the way, and while I can’t say much about them, here they are!

A view of the old city from The Dream

Many of the old city's streets are narrow and have a colonial feel to them, with lamps coming out of the walls.

Another view of the narrow streets, busy withe people and full of coffee shops, restaurants, and pubs.

The next day was pretty much a sea day, landing us in Copenhagen, Denmark, around seven in the evening. During the day we rehearsed Sea Legs at Sea, and again my part in that show is identical to what I did in the Spring, minus one harmony, so rehearsal was a piece of cake (which sounds awesome, doesn’t it? White icing… and some fruit on top… oh, and a big glass of milk… sorry, what?).

We enjoy an overnight in Copenhagen, not setting sail until noon the following day. I set out with some of the guys in the band (Michael from Texas who plays trombone, John from LA who plays the trumpet, Dan from Utah who plays Drums, Sam from Texas, who plays bass) and a couple of Pax. Now that I mention it, this is probably the biggest group of Americans I’ve ever seen assembled in one place during any contract… and three of us from Texas no less! Anyway, Sam was the resident expert, and lead us down to the main part of town, with lots of shops, restaurants, and bars. When in Copenhagen… go to an Irish Bar, that’s what I always say! Stayed there for a couple of hours, enjoyed some Carlsberg Special, listened to some authentic live Irish music (yes, in Denmark… I know) and made our way back to the Dream.

The next morning I went out for a stroll, saw a lot of statues, including a famous small mermaid.

Not sure why, but a lot of folks like to take pictures of her

The locals also like to saw her head off, so I hear, but luckily they also like to replace it. Continued on to see more statues, fountains, and churches… I knew that I was defiantly not in Mexico anymore. Again, no tour guides, so I just took a bunch of pretty pictures…

Here I am with my buddy John enjoying a frosty Irish brew in the Rover at Copenhagen.

Okay, not a pretty picture... looks like someone dropped something heavy from a very high place.

Then it was back on board to set sail for Dover, our disembarkation and embarkation port. That night we did two rousing (yet still slightly nauseating) Sea Legs At Sea. I still get to sing NCLs official good bye song “Home Away From Home” which, like wearing a sequined captain’s outfit, is a guilty pleasure of mine. Which pretty much brings us back to the present…

It’s the final sea day of our 12 day cruise… and I’ve only been on board for five days. There are still many more ports to see, and I still have yet to revisit Rock This Town, the show where I sing the exact opposite of what I did back in the Spring. Tonight it’s poker with the guys… some things, fortunately, don’t change around here… Unfortunately, it still smells like a fresh fart throughout the ship. As a matter of fact, after discussing it with Tracey, we agree that it’s actually worse now than back in the Spring. Our friend The Dream is getting older, and needs to lay off the dairy.

And I believe that’s going to be all for now. Going to get cleaned up and have some dinner in the Trattoria. Keep on livin’ The Dream.

Your pal,

Michael Lamendola
(About to blow up the Dream from high atop Dover Castle... more on that next time)