Thursday, June 30, 2016

Our Baltic Cruise: Warnemünde and Berlin, Germany

Yesterday in this space, I told you about our visit to Oslo, Norway. Todays post takes us to the port of Warnemünde, Germany and our further excursion to the city of Berlin on Friday, June 17th ...

The Regal Princess docked at Warnemünde at 6:45 AM under skies still heavily overcast and rain still drizzling down.

We had signed up for a tour called "Berlin on Your Own," which involved a two-hour chartered train trip from Warnemünde to Berlin and a bus ride to the drop-off point at the Gendarmenmarkt, from where we could go where we liked ... as long as we were back to meet the bus at the appointed time for the return to the ship.

The day got off to an unfortunate start when our train departure from Warnemünde was delayed by an hour and a half when one of the elderly passengers suffered a heart attack after boarding. An ambulance came howling alongside the train, followed by the arrival of a emergency doctor (Notarzt) by helicopter, and we sat on the siding for quite a while as the doctors worked to save the unfortunate man's life. When we eventually pulled out, the ambulance and helicopter were still there, and we could see the team of doctors in the back of the ambulance still doing frantic CPR.*

We were fortunate enough to share a compartment on the train with Pierre and Mary, a delightful Canadian couple with whom we enjoyed conversing about every topic under the sun while the flat North German Plain rolled by outside. Mary was planning to celebrate her 70th birthday in St Petersburg, and Pierre was an avid artist, photographer, and cinematographer who happily traded shop talk on PhotoShop and imaging techniques with Agnes.

The train trip flew by and we soon arrived at the Berlin-Ost train station (Bahnhof), where we separated from the group - Agnes's friend Andrea had hired a car and driver for the day, and met us at the station, so that we didn't need to take the bus to the Gendarmenmarkt drop-off point. This necessitated some exchanging of cell phone numbers with the two tour escorts (Catherin and Lena) so that we would be able to locate the rest of the group when it was time to depart later in the afternoon.

We hadn't seen Andrea since December of 1982 - she'd been Agnes's witness at our wedding, and we had lost contact with her over the years until we finally reconnected by e-mail a few months ago. A joyous reunion ensued in front of the Dunkin Donuts shop in the train station**, and we hopped into the car Andrea had hired for a fast tour of the city we hadn't seen since the Wall was still up.

We concentrated first on the eastern half of the city, which was more-or-less off limits to me back in the day. The amount of new construction was staggering, as was the traffic. Most of the infamous Berlin Wall had been torn down and relegated to museums and displays around the world, but a few sections of it still remain as memorials ... including this one with a bit of sarcastic artwork ...

The image is of former Soviet Premier Brezhnev and former East German leader Erich Honnecker, and the inscription at the bottom says in Russian and German, "My God, help me survive this deadly love affair."

We visited the newly renovated areas around the banks of the river Spree, which was once part of the fortified border between East and West Berlin ... reminders of that unhappy time are still there in the form of memorials to people killed by the East German border guards as they tried to swim the river to escape to the West ...

We drove all over the central portion of the former East Berlin, through the Nikolaiviertel (the reconstructed center of old Berlin), down narrow streets now full of chic restaurants and shops, and by the famous Museuminsel (Museum Island), although we didn't have the time to actually visit any of them***. Of course, we had to see the standard tourist landmarks of the Brandenburg Gate

and the Reichstag

along with the fabulous Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

Although the street beneath the Brandenburg Gate is technically open, Andrea told us it's almost always closed off for some festival, concert, demonstration, or other activity ... hence the ugly temporary fencing around the base. Likewise, the beautiful greensward and gardens in front of the Reichstag were fenced off to try to protect the new plantings.

Because of our time constraints and uncertainty of schedule, we weren't able on this visit to go inside the Reichstag, which is open to visitors with reservations. It's possible to go high up into the glass dome, which is said to offer wonderful panoramic views of the city.

We stopped along the way, as aging tourists will do, for a pit stop at one of the big hotels, and saw this amazing display - a huge, cylindrical aquarium with a glass elevator going right up through the center. I wonder if this is where you can select your fresh fish dinner for the hotel restaurant ...

We stopped for lunch at the Lutter & Wegner Restaurant (established in 1811)

where Andrea and I had a wonderful steak tartare, Agnes enjoyed an enormous Wiener Schnitzel (the menu said it was the "small" portion), and we toasted our reunion with a glass of champagne. 

Thus fortified, we continued on to other locations we remembered from our days in Berlin, as well as others that had previously been off-limits ... like the site of Adolf Hitler's Führerbunker (leadership bunker), now demolished, sealed up, and buried under a parking lot ...

Our last major stop was at the Holocaust Memorial, which is of an unusual and unsettling design ...

It consists of a very large (about 4.7 acres, or over 19,000 square meters) field dotted with more than 2,700 concrete slabs of varying heights, many of them tilted at odd angles and arranged in rows designed to produce an unsettling and confusing atmosphere and a supposedly-ordered system disconnected from reason. It works. There is also a large museum underneath the memorial, but we'll have to visit it another time.

By the time we'd wandered through this memorial it was getting late, and we needed to get back to the Gendarmenmarkt to reconnect with our tour group for the trip back to Warnemünde. We had time for a nice coffee at a cafe on the square before saying goodbye to Andrea - hopefully we will not have to wait another 35 years to see her again.

The weather had been chilly and raining most of the morning, but a bit of sun had come out and the rain had stopped after lunch, so we walked to the appointed spot to meet our bus ... which was not there. And, of course, it then started to rain again! A flurry of text messages went back and forth between yours truly and tour escorts Catherin and Lena, and we finally located our bus ... on a cross-street about a block from where we'd been told to meet it. At least it was dry!

We took the bus back through miserable traffic to the train station where we boarded for the trip back to Warnemünde. Happily, we ended up in the same compartment we'd had on the trip down, with the same Mary and Pierre, so the trip back was quite enjoyable.

And that was our visit to Berlin, a city we love that has changed tremendously since we departed all those years ago. I took lots of pictures (far more than I've inflicted upon you in this post) and wrote six pages of commentary in my travel journal so that we could remember everything. It was a nice, if damp visit and a great chance to renew our friendship with Andrea.

The Regal Princess sailed at about 10:00 PM (they'd extended the departure so that those of us delayed in our departure for Berlin could have our full day) for a day at sea prior to our next port of call, Tallinn, Estonia ... which we will visit in this space next week.

Have a good day. See you tomorrow for the naming of July's Right Cheek Ass Clown. Be here!


* We never did find out what happened to the poor gentleman and his family, who stayed with him when the train departed.

** Because where else would you meet someone you hadn't seen in almost 35 years?

*** Back in 1981 or so I had the opportunity to visit the fabulous Pergamon Museum, which is still there although under renovation.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Our Baltic Cruise: Oslo, Norway

The Regal Princess sailed into our first port of call - Oslo, Norway - shortly after 10:00 on the misty, rainy morning of Wednesday, June 15th. We had registered for a combination boat tour of the harbor and visit to the Polar Expedition museum, so the weather was not particularly promising. But you pays your money and you takes your chances, and so we donned our rain gear, gritted our teeth, and headed out to board the good ship Lady Mack for our very wet tour.

You can see from this picture that the rain convinced most of the tour participants to remain aft, under the rain cover. The figure in the red raincoat is Agnes, bravely positioning herself to see what could be seen ...

The city is built on the mainland and on islands, and the architecture is very colorful, with bright yellow, blue, red, and green predominating. According to our guide, the color schemes are set by law on the various islands ... a form of zoning to keep the harbor colorful.

This church, built out into the harbor at the end of a long causeway, was intended to greet sailors returning from their time at sea ...

The harbor tour ended when the Lady Mack docked in front of the maritime museum complex*.

We visited the Fram Museum, dedicated to Norwegian polar expeditions and containing the actual vessel Fram, the first ship specifically designed for polar exploration and used by the famous Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, and Otto Sverdrup. It was difficult to get good photos inside the museum, but here's the Fram in its display ...

The ship was open to visit, and we were able to walk through the entire vessel, marveling at how small groups of men (no women on the expeditions) could live for months at a time in such cramped and crowded quarters in arctic conditions. We could easily have spent at least a full day in the museum complex, which was filled with marvelous historical and hands-on displays like this one ...

... but we were driven by the time limits that required us to get back to our bus by a certain time.

We decided, since the rain had moderated a bit, to walk around the museum grounds. I liked this scene of small boats at a small dock ...

This photo shows statues of famous polar explorers in front of the museum ...

This was an unusual monument on the museum grounds ... there was no translation available of the inscription, but because it features a mine, I believe it was dedicated to sailors lost in World War I ...

From the Fram Museum, our bus returned us to the Regal Princess, but we still had several hours before the ship sailed, and we were docked right in front of the Akershus Fortress. We figured we wouldn't get much wetter than we already were, so we decided to hike up the hill and visit ...

Free admission was nice ...

A view up the hill toward the entrance ...

And a glimpse of the Regal Princess through one of the archways. You can see how steep the path up the hill is ...

The grounds of the fortress are dotted with a series of statues called "Silent Howlers" which were both realistic and somewhat unsettling ...

There were numerous other statues dotting the grounds. We spoke with a young woman who really didn't like this one, saying that it "creeped her out" ...

The castle is actually a military area, even though the grounds are open to the public. Agnes took a photo of this young woman standing guard in the rain ...

The fortress grounds were very interesting and beautiful, but it was difficult to get good pictures because of the large number of swarming tourists who kept getting in the way. We finally decided we'd seen everything there was to see, taken enough photos, and were as wet and cold as we were likely to get, so we swam walked back down the hill and returned to the Regal Princess.

We sailed out of the Oslo harbor just after 10:30 that evening ...

headed for a day at sea before our arrival at the harbor of Warnemünde, Germany and our visit to Berlin. That, however, is a topic for another day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Unfortunately, the tour did not include the famous Viking Ship Museum, which I'd visited on a brief visit to Oslo many years ago, and is well worth seeing if you have the opportunity.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Back Home Again

Yes, Dear Readers, we have returned from our vacation!

You will recall that we flew from Washington to Copenhagen, Denmark on June 13th to meet the good ship Regal Princess, and from there spent the next 11 days in a trip that took us to Oslo (Norway), Berlin (Germany), Tallinn (Estonia), St Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden). We also spent two more days in Copenhagen before flying back home on Monday the 27th.

I'll have more to tell you about the various places we visited over the next few days, after I get all the pictures sorted out and recover from the jet lag. Our trip home from Copenhagen was the Airline Journey from Hell, starting with getting up at 3:00 AM for a 3:30 taxi to get to the airport to meet our 6:05 flight to ... of all places ... Edinburgh, Scotland, from where we connected to a flight to Newark, for a final connection to Washington Dulles. I will say only that: (1) SAS (the airline, not the British special forces) does not set a very high bar for organization and customer service; and (2) although the Scots are a warm and friendly people, their immigration procedures for transit passengers border on something out of the Spanish Inquisition. We also arrived home minus Agnes's suitcase, which decided to take a vacation of its own*.

On the whole, we had a great time. The weather was awful for our visits to Oslo, Berlin, Tallin, and our second day in St Petersburg, where it rained more or less heavily the entire time, but the first day in St Petersburg was glorious, as were our days in Helsinki, Stockholm, and (at the end) Copenhagen. Most of our previous cruises have been to the Caribbean, where the rain is warm and usually goes away quickly, so this was pretty yucky.

I'll tell you more about the trip later (with pictures) but I wanted to mention one of the highlights up front. When we visited Berlin, we were met by Agnes's friend Andrea, who had been her witness at our wedding back in 1982 ... and who we haven't seen since we left Berlin back in December of that year!

It was a wonderful reunion, and made up for the miserable weather we had through the morning ... especially when Andrea thoughtfully helped shelter me while I took pictures ...

Stay tuned for more details of the adventure over the coming days. For now, I need to catch up on some sleep.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Although we cleared customs at Newark and turned in both our suitcases for the transfer flight at the same time, Agnes's got put on a later flight. The helpful lady at the United baggage tracking office at Dulles was able to locate it right away, and told me they'd deliver it when it arrived later Monday evening. I asked her to wait and have it delivered on Tuesday morning, as I expected we'd both be sound asleep and wouldn't want to have someone knocking at the door in the middle of the night. She agreed ... but that didn't stop a different person from calling us at 1:10 AM to ask if he should deliver the suitcase then or wait until morning ...

Monday, June 27, 2016

Musical Monday

I just love this song ... Grace Jones may be a bit strange, but she's got great music ...

I'm not perfect, either ... but somehow Agnes has learned to deal with it, and we're perfect for each other.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Poetry Sunday

One of my favorite poets is Robert W. Service, the writer known as "The Bard of the Yukon" for his fanciful tall tales of life in the frozen North. He writes with a wonderful cadence and choice of words and rhymes, and his stories are ... well ... memorable, to say the least. My favorite of his poems is The Cremation of Sam McGee (and it's a poem I love to read aloud) ... this one is similar ...

The Ballad Of Blasphemous Bill
by Robert W. Service

I took a contract to bury the body of blasphemous Bill MacKie,
Whenever, wherever or whatsoever the manner of death he die --
Whether he die in the light o' day or under the peak-faced moon;
In cabin or dance-hall, camp or dive, mucklucks or patent shoon;
On velvet tundra or virgin peak, by glacier, drift or draw;
In muskeg hollow or canyon gloom, by avalanche, fang or claw;
By battle, murder or sudden wealth, by pestilence, hooch or lead --
I swore on the Book I would follow and look till I found my tombless dead.

For Bill was a dainty kind of cuss, and his mind was mighty sot
On a dinky patch with flowers and grass in a civilized bone-yard lot.
And where he died or how he died, it didn't matter a damn
So long as he had a grave with frills and a tombstone "epigram".
So I promised him, and he paid the price in good cheechako coin
(Which the same I blowed in that very night down in the Tenderloin).
Then I painted a three-foot slab of pine:  "Here lies poor Bill MacKie",
And I hung it up on my cabin wall and I waited for Bill to die.

Years passed away, and at last one day came a squaw with a story strange,
Of a long-deserted line of traps 'way back of the Bighorn range;
Of a little hut by the great divide, and a white man stiff and still,
Lying there by his lonesome self, and I figured it must be Bill.
So I thought of the contract I'd made with him, and I took down from the shelf
The swell black box with the silver plate he'd picked out for hisself;
And I packed it full of grub and "hooch", and I slung it on the sleigh;
Then I harnessed up my team of dogs and was off at dawn of day.

You know what it's like in the Yukon wild when it's sixty-nine below;
When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads through the crust of the pale blue snow;
When the pine-trees crack like little guns in the silence of the wood,
And the icicles hang down like tusks under the parka hood;
When the stove-pipe smoke breaks sudden off, and the sky is weirdly lit,
And the careless feel of a bit of steel burns like a red-hot spit;
When the mercury is a frozen ball, and the frost-fiend stalks to kill --
Well, it was just like that that day when I set out to look for Bill.

Oh, the awful hush that seemed to crush me down on every hand,
As I blundered blind with a trail to find through that blank and bitter land;
Half dazed, half crazed in the winter wild, with its grim heart-breaking woes,
And the ruthless strife for a grip on life that only the sourdough knows!
North by the compass, North I pressed; river and peak and plain
Passed like a dream I slept to lose and I waked to dream again.

River and plain and mighty peak -- and who could stand unawed?
As their summits blazed, he could stand undazed at the foot of the throne of God.
North, aye, North, through a land accurst, shunned by the scouring brutes,
And all I heard was my own harsh word and the whine of the malamutes,
Till at last I came to a cabin squat, built in the side of a hill,
And I burst in the door, and there on the floor, frozen to death, lay Bill.

Ice, white ice, like a winding-sheet, sheathing each smoke-grimed wall;
Ice on the stove-pipe, ice on the bed, ice gleaming over all;
Sparkling ice on the dead man's chest, glittering ice in his hair,
Ice on his fingers, ice in his heart, ice in his glassy stare;
Hard as a log and trussed like a frog, with his arms and legs outspread.
I gazed at the coffin I'd brought for him, and I gazed at the gruesome dead,
And at last I spoke:  "Bill liked his joke; but still, goldarn his eyes,
A man had ought to consider his mates in the way he goes and dies."

Have you ever stood in an Arctic hut in the shadow of the Pole,
With a little coffin six by three and a grief you can't control?
Have you ever sat by a frozen corpse that looks at you with a grin,
And that seems to say:  "You may try all day, but you'll never jam me in"?
I'm not a man of the quitting kind, but I never felt so blue
As I sat there gazing at that stiff and studying what I'd do.
Then I rose and I kicked off the husky dogs that were nosing round about,
And I lit a roaring fire in the stove, and I started to thaw Bill out.

Well, I thawed and thawed for thirteen days, but it didn't seem no good;
His arms and legs stuck out like pegs, as if they was made of wood.
Till at last I said:  "It ain't no use -- he's froze too hard to thaw;
He's obstinate, and he won't lie straight, so I guess I got to -- saw."
So I sawed off poor Bill's arms and legs, and I laid him snug and straight
In the little coffin he picked hisself, with the dinky silver plate;
And I came nigh near to shedding a tear as I nailed him safely down;
Then I stowed him away in my Yukon sleigh, and I started back to town.

So I buried him as the contract was in a narrow grave and deep,
And there he's waiting the Great Clean-up, when the Judgment sluice-heads sweep;
And I smoke my pipe and I meditate in the light of the Midnight Sun,
And sometimes I wonder if they was, the awful things I done.
And as I sit and the parson talks, expounding of the Law,
I often think of poor old Bill -- and how hard he was to saw.

Have a good day, and stay cool ... not necessarily frozen.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Cartoon Saturday

We're still on vacation, so there's no news summary this week ... but the cartoons are always here for you. This week, we focus on one of the most unfortunate of trends - tattoos:

This would be useful ...

Yes, this is how it ought to work ...

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander ...

Ouch ...

Many who want tattoos go for the shock value ...

Tattoo regret is a real phenomenon ...

Sad, but I've seen similar things ...

Niche markets ...

This makes sense if you are familiar with the expression "whale tail" ... also referred to as a "Santa Cruz License Plate" ...

The stories we tell our children ...

You may also want to listen to Jimmy Buffett's classic song, "Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling."

Have a good day and a great weekend, and come back tomorrow for Poetry Sunday. More thoughts then.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Great Moments in Editing and Signage

It's Friday, and we're still on vacation ... but your favorite blog topics never take a break ...

I hope they actually apprehend these terrible criminals soon ...

I've heard her bark is worse than her bite ...

Finally, we have a defense against deaf beauty queens ...

The story behind the story ...

I think this is patently discriminatory against overweight canons ...

I get my fill of boiled and fried nonsense by listening to Donald Trump speeches ...

When it's appropriate to lie (other than when running for president) ...

Well, duh ...

The official GOP summary of The Wizard of Oz ...

Well, it's low-maintenance ...

And that's it for this edition of Great Moments in Editing and Signage. Come back tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday. More thoughts then.