Sunday, August 12, 2018

Filling the Bucket: "Med Mange Takk"*

(*) "With Many Thanks", in Norwegian

How can I end a series of postings about a trip that I never really imagined I would ever take?

I actually pondered the above question during the trip and ended up with the following idea:  Gratitude; I'll end these series of postings with gratitude.  So with that in mind, I have a lot to be grateful for, and I'll do my best in the text that follows to try and express that gratitude.  With exception of the last item in the list below, this isn't intended to be in any particular order.

Thank You - The crew of the Viking Star
"The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them." - Amelia Barr

(The Viking Sun, sister ship to the Viking Star)

Viking Cruise Lines must be a terrific company to work for because every single crew person I encountered on the Viking Star was positive, focused on the guests of the ship, and (most importantly) seemed to be having fun.  Whatever they are doing from a Human Resources perspective is working; perhaps the folks that run WalMart need to pay them a visit.

I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND a Viking cruise to anyone interested in taking an unforgettable voyage.

Thank You - To the Tour Guides
I'm convinced that, once you leave the Russian military special forces, you become a western tour group guide in St. Petersburg.  We had terrific tour guides at all of our stops, especially so in Russia.  While Russia was a somewhat challenging place to visit, it's clear that our tour guides took their work...and the well-being of the groups they are leading...very seriously.  Another reason to choose a Viking cruise.

Thank You - To my Brother Rich
For the pick-up service in Philadelphia.  I don't want to imagine just how much it would stink to undertake a  2+ drive after 7+ hours of air travel, at night, when my body thinks that it's actually well into the wee hours of the morning.

( Steve & Rich in1981; I look like a q-tip)

Thank You - The Rivers Family
David, Elizabeth, Julie, Mark, Diana, Kyra, John, Fran...thank you for the honor of being part of your family, especially so over the past two weeks.  Special thanks for tolerating my incessant photography (for the benefit of the curious, I took about 1,600 photographs during the trip).

Thank You - Most Especially - To My Wonderful Wife
I wouldn't have made this trip without my wife, Ms. Rivers.  In fact, the absolute best part of this trip was being able to see so many different places with my best friend in the whole entire world, the person that I miraculously get to call my wife.  There is a world of difference between being on a trip like this alone vs. making it with your partner in all things. 

(Near Copenhagen, Denmark)

Along those lines, I can think of no better song to express how I feel than following...

Finally, I'll note that " can I end..." is something of a misnomer, in that I'm pretty sure I have one more posting in me about the trip.  A kind of re-cap of places if you will.   That one needs a bit more time, plus I have laundry to do.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Filling the Bucket, Day 15 - Stockholm, Sweden

At the Port of Stockholm

Prior to July 28th, I had never taken a vacation this long (in this case, 16 days).  I had also only barely left the country (sorry Canada, but you're basically a big...and nicer...version of Minnesota).  Since July 28th, I have:
  • Visited 7 countries
  • Visited two national capitals
  • Taken my first ever trip onboard a cruise ship
  • Visited countries where a majority doesn't speak English
The list could go on, and on, and on, but I don't get anything out of boring others or myself, so I'll leave it at the four items above.  Suffice to say, it's been a long and sometimes strange trip.  I'm grateful for the experience (more on that in a future posting) but also glad to be going home.  I have some business there to attend to for which I am glad to report I have some new-found clarity.  Anyway, on to some pictures.

Pictures of Stockholm, both from the ship and from our walking about the town.

Stockholm is a beautiful city, a place where you can walk down just about any street and see a magnificent older building.  This is a place worth visiting.

Vasa Museum
You can read more about the Vasa HERE.

(The exterior of the museum)

(The bow of the Vasa)

(The stern of the Vasa)

ABBA Museum
A fitting coda, at least for me, to a bucket-list trip.

Okay, I confess:  I didn't take any photographs at the museum.  Basically, I don't think they wanted visitors to take pictures.  You can learn more about the museum HERE.  This place is worth visiting if you are an ABBA fan.  If you're not, well, go next door and enjoy the amusement park.

  • Time.  Stockholm, like every place we've visited, uses a 24-hour clock, where, for example, 1pm is 13:00 hours.  It makes sense to me, which is probably why the United States sticks with the whole AM/PM thing (along with avoiding the metric system).
  • Unisex.  The Vasa museum featured unisex bathrooms, as in two bathrooms that just consisted of fully enclosed stalls and sinks.  It was odd seeing a woman coming out of a bathroom space I was entering, but in the end, what did it matter?  It's not as if I saw any "naughty bits".
  • Dry.  Northern Europe has been very hot (as noted in other postings) and very dry, so much so that some of the trees in Sweden have started to drop their leaves.  I guess I didn't need that colder weather coat I brought on the trip after all.
  • Cars.  The Swedes love their cars, and although there is public transportation a-plenty (we even took a ferry today), it's clear why SAAB and Volvo are both Swedish companies.  What I didn't see was anything that was old or otherwise in bad shape (as in my first few cars).
  • Sunset.  I could never get used to sunset being after 10pm, especially when it comes at the cost of extremely shortened daylight during the winter months (our guide in Helsinki said that typically in January, it's light between 9am and 3pm).  For the record, it also looks like twilight at around 3am.
Soon the very the long trip home begins.  We'll be moving backward in time by 6 hours, so while leaving Stockholm at 2pm, we will magically arrive in Philadelphia at 7pm (ish) after many more hours in transit.  Hopefully, the trip will be more comfortable than what we experienced coming out to Bergen.

Finally, I wanted to say thank you to all who took the time to read these dispatches from the field (if you want to call them that...) and provide me with feedback.  This really wasn't work for me, which does beg the basic question of why don't I find a way to do this for a living if, in fact, I enjoy it so much.  That's a bigger question for another day.  Anyway, my plan is to package these postings, along with some photographs and other assorted paraphernalia, into something of an album.  Something to give a certain dimension to the memories that will no doubt grow foggy over time.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Filling the Bucket, Day 14 - Helsinki, Finland

On-Board the Viking Star

I expected Helsinki to be, well, bigger.  You hear about the city in the news of the world all the time, but when you get down to brass tacks, it's a city of little over 600,000.  Like Tallin, it's impeccably clean and cosmopolitan.  I'd best describe it as being, well, nondescript.  First thing in the morning we went down to the harbor market.

(Near the Harbor Market)

(Helsinki Town Hall)

(The Cathedral of the Finnish Lutheran Church)

In the afternoon we were on a small boat cruise of the waterways around Helsinki.

(An old fortification)

(A complex on one of the islands)

Finally, a few shots from the trip out of the Port of Helsinki.

(Basically the Helsinki skyline, all be it from pretty far away)

(On one of the many little harbor islands)

  • Streak Broken.  The streak has been broken, as I saw my first real pick-up truck in Europe in the Port of Helsinki, a late 70's/early 80's vintage full-sized Ford (the badge read "Ranger", but it was more of an F-150).  Gaze upon it in all of its splendor -
  • English.  As somewhat expected, the English language skills I encountered in Helsinki were simply outstanding.  In fact, I vendor I spoke to at the harbor market spoke perfect English.
  • Signs.  Most signs in Helsinki are written in both Finnish and Swedish (which is the largest minority in Finland).  Honestly, I couldn't tell the difference and in fact, thought that "gee, the place names here are really long here". 
  • (Not) National Anthem.  Monty Python fans have probably heard the "Finland" song, but for those who have not...all together Fin-a-philes -

Tomorrow is our final stop, Stockholm.  This is a place I've always wanted to visit, literally, since I was a teenager.  It's the "bucket" in "bucket list".  Stops will include the Vasa and the ABBA museum.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Filling the Bucket, Day 13 - Russia

On-Board the Viking Star

One of the Russian words for angel-like creatures sounds, when spoken by a native speaker, an awful lot like "Putin" to this person from the United States.  I kid you not.

Today was our second day in St. Petersburg, Russia.  In some ways, I am conflicted about our stay.  On one hand, it would have been nice to have more time in St. Petersburg, as there is just so much to see and learn.  On the other hand, this is a place that doesn't lend itself, at least in my opinion, to independent exploration by foreigners.  Make no mistake about it:  While the Russians enjoy the benefits of tourism(1), they aren't adapting all that much to tourists.  The vast, vast majority of the signage is just in Russian (how dare they!), and it seems from my experiences that most Russian's don't speak English(2) all that well (if at all...again, their country, they can do what they want).  Navigating crowds in St. Petersburg, be it in a church or on the street, also takes a special kind of expertise that may only be available to big city cab-drivers.  Finally, I'm convinced that Russians are genetically incapable of the false smile that's a must-have for any self-respecting tourist town; this may not, by the way, be a bad thing.

Then there's port security.  Leaving our ship for the first time, we had to pass through what was effectively an international border, complete with stern folks wearing uniforms, who compared our passport photo to our actual face and then issued various stamps.  We had to go back through a similar process on the way back to the ship.  Now given that Russia seems to be something of a target for terrorism(3), I can understand the tight security.  However, it also doesn't exactly scream "Welcome to Mother Russia!  Please stay and spend your money!".  Also, this has been our first stop where there wasn't time built into agendas for local shopping (see above).  Mind you, there are two shops near the port, but...I kid you not...there so bright with trinkets and lighting on glass shelves that I felt as if I were going to need a welder's mask just to walk by.  Also, I can't end this paragraph without mentioning that my brother-in-law's wife was nearly accosted by the man wearing a bear costume in a public park yesterday(4).

All of the above duly noted, our time in Russia reinforces the idea I expressed towards the beginning of this trip, namely that people are people no matter where you go.  Yes, there are those differences that kind of slap you up-side the head, such as language, but there are also plenty of universal things holding us together as well, such as basic human kindness and the frustrations that come with traffic jams (be they in Philadelphia or St. Petersburg).  St. Petersburg has laborers, cops, road construction, hipsters, modern buildings and dilapidated ones, and all of the other things that make up a modern society today.  It's much less "them" and more like "us" than some would have you believe.

Commentary completed.  On to some pictures.

Catherine Palace
Basic information about Catherine Palace can be found HERE.  We spent a few hours there, and I have to say that I was impressed.

(The front of the palace; the picture doesn't do the size justice)

(The front gate)

(One of several very, very, very gold rooms) 

(Dining Hall)

(The main staircase, after the NAZIs were finished with the palace during World War 2)

(The main staircase, after rebuilding)

I'm limited to the number of photos I can share, but the grounds of the palace are simply beautiful.

Miscellaneous St. Petersburg
While I have a few more megabytes available for this posting, here are a few additional photographs of the city.

(The locals say this looks like a giant corn cob; it's a new building for Gazprom)

(Something of a skyline)

(Okay, I's a photo of the Catherine Palance grounds)

For the record, I took a total of 375 photos with my Sony Alpha, plus about a dozen more with the cell phone in St. Petersburg.  Deciding what to share, when I can only pick about 7 to 9, is pretty tough.  Anyway, attribute that one to #FirstWorldProblems.

Tomorrow we land in Helsinki, Finland.

* * * * * *

(1) I counted, at one point, five cruise ships in port at St. Petersburg.
(2) Unlike, say, most Norwegians, who seem to speak English better than the entire population of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.
(3) Google Chechnya.  The root causes of that conflict can be debated.
(4) I know, that point doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of the paragraph, but seriously, where else could I put it?  A transition to "nearly accosted by someone wearing a bear costume in a Russian park" is tough to construct.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Filling the Bucket, Day 12 - Russia

Port of St. Petersburg, Russian Federation

I normally write these screeds from our stateroom balcony, but since we've had a refueling ship alongside us and as a result, the air is thick with the smell of diesel fuel, I'm opting for the indoor version.  I think that's something of a Russian metaphor.  More on that tomorrow...maybe.

* * * * * *

We actually have two days in St. Petersburg, so I'm going to save the commentary part of what I usually post until tomorrow (and we're in route to Finland).  Speaking of today, we opted for a canal and church tour of St. Petersburg, although our original plan was something a bit more comprehensive.  Given our experiences today, I think we made a good call.

First up, a few photographs that were taken from our wonderful canal tour of the city.

Next, we visited the Resurrection Church, also known as the "Church on the Spilled Blood").  Two things about the church stand out:
  • The word "crowded" doesn't begin to describe the interior of this place.
  • Every single inch of the building's interior was covered in something.

(Looking up)

(The main altar; the church is still used for services)

(Exterior view; no photograph does this place justice)

Finally, we stopped at the St. Isaac's Cathedral.  Another church that had an incredibly artistic interior (like the Church on the Spilled Blood), but with a design that's more reminiscent of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.


(View up to the main dome)

(Door, showing the relative size)

(Damage from the Siege of Leningrad during World War 2)

До свидания!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Filling the Bucket, Day 11 - Tallinn, Estonia

On the Baltic Sea

If I were to poll 1,000 different Americans and asked them to find Tallin on a map, I think that about 986 would answer something along the lines of "I have no idea" or maybe "yeah, isn't that somewhere in New Jersey?".  Granted that Americans are (in)famously challenged when it comes to geography in general; add in little-known lands and, well, the odds just don't look good.  By way of full disclosure, I was nearly a geography major in college so I can say that, even as a younger man, I knew of Tallinn (and Estonia, as well as the rest of the Baltic states).  I'll confess though that this knowledge hasn't really benefited me all that much, well until now.

Anyway, Tallinn, Estonia, is best described in comparison to Gdansk, Poland.  Both:
  • Were under the thumb of the former Soviet Union
  • Are port cities on the Baltic Sea
  • Have languages that sound more like slurred Klingon than English
The above is pretty much where the similarities end.  Where the port of Gdansk is overgrown and industrial looking, Tallinn has a modern port that invites tourists and also has actual security(*).  Another key difference between the two cities is in the area of basic cleanliness:  Tallinn was one of the cleanest cities I've ever seen, anywhere.  Granted that Gdansk was in the throws of a festival when we visited, but outside of the St. Dominic's Fair crowds, the outskirts of the city were simply run-down looking; not so with Tallinn, where everything seemed to well cared-for and in its place.

Tallinn is, simply put, a beautiful place.  Here's some proof.

(Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky)

(The spire of the Tallinn Town Hall)

(The Estonian Parlament Building)

(The clock on the side of The Holy Spirit Church, one of the oldest functioning clocks in Europe)

(Spire of the Domed Cathedral)

(On Tallinn Town Square:  The Garlic Restaurant & one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe)

(An alleyway in Tallinn)

(From the ship with the zoom lens:  The Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky)

Lastly, while crime isn't much of an issue in the city, the authorities in Tallinn would like to remind you to beware of pick-pockets.

  • Tech Center.  Estonia views itself as being something a technology center, and the fact that Skype was created here is a source of enormous national pride.  
  • Red Scare.  There's clearly a lot of apprehension about Russia in Estonia.  If history (including the recent variety, i.e. Ukraine) is something of a guide, well, the fears may not be unfounded.  For the record, Estonia is a member of NATO, which, given some of the current (American) President's comments, may not be all that comforting.
  • Scandinavian Intent.  My impression coming to Estonia was that it is a Slavic country, but the residents clearly like to view themselves as being more Scandinavian than anything else, with a special affinity for the Finnish.
  • Tourism.  Tourism is big business in Tallinn.  Our guide said that they can sometimes have up to five cruise ship in port at any given time.  Do the words "tourism" and "Estonia" seem to go together to you?  I didn't think so.

Tomorrow we said into St. Petersburg, Russia.  That brings me to the story of 3,000 rubles.

Coming back to the port of Tallinn in the early afternoon, we stopped by a few shops located in the area of our ship.  I wasn't looking for anything in particular, but I did see a currency exchange service.  Knowing that we are next headed to Russia, I thought it might be a good idea to get some of the local currency in advance, as I'm a little wary of money dealings in a country not necessarily known for strong financial controls.  Anyway, since I hadn't checked the exchange rate, I just picked a number...$ what I would produce for the transaction.  Now I know how exchange rates work (and even concepts such as arbitrage), so I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but sure enough that worked out to about 3,000 rubles.  Fortunately, I ended up getting a 1,000 and a few 500 ruble notes, so as to not over-stuff my wallet.  I'll try not to spend it all in one place.

* * * * * *

(*) In Tallinn, there was the usual cruise ship security plus a checkpoint with a guard that made sure that only authorized vehicles got close to the actual port.  In Gdansk, well, pretty much anyone could drive right up to the ship.