Thursday, April 18, 2024

Alaska, 2014: Keeping our cool


We are back from 12 days of vacation in Alaska. The blog's title refers to the fact that the temperature never did get above 70 degrees at any point. (Well, it is Alaska, one of nature's refrigerators.) But it didn't rain when we were out and about, and we did have Baked Alaska for dessert along the way.

You probably will be preoccupied with the picture at right, taken from a floatplane in the middle of a lake in Misty Fiords National Monument, one of the most spectacular places I've seen. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.) When you are done gawking, read a few observations about the trip, which consisted of six days on land and six days on-and-off a cruise ship that toured the coast line:

* Alaska really is the Land of the Midnight Sun, or close to it, in early June. The first sign came while flying into Fairbanks at 10:24 p.m., and having the sun come through the window of the plane at a blinding angle. The sun set there at 12:15 a.m. or so, and rose at 3:45 a.m. (By the way, Alaska is always four hours behind Eastern time, no matter where you are in the state. And it's a big state - two-plus times the size of Texas.) It took us a week to be awake when it was dark out, an interesting sensation.

* This was our first "packaged" tour, in which people with the same itineraries are bunched together for the first part of the week. That was a little odd, since we are used to going on our own timetable while on vacation and there is a certain feeling of being cattle along the way. Clearly, though, it's necessary - and we did meet a lot of nice people along the way. (Along those lines, the most repeated question on a tour like this is "Where are you from?")

The first thing we noticed involved photography. There were lots of camera phones in use to take pictures, which didn't surprise me. But I was caught off-guard by people to brought tablets to shoot the scenery. It looked, um, awkward. Valuable tip: If you are going to take a huge vacation, get a good camera.

A special mention goes to the woman who took a selfie of herself with a statue of a dog. Maam, I would have taken a picture of the two of you had you asked.

* Want to make friends quickly in a group? Some sort of apparel identifying your location works nicely. I work a Syracuse sweatshirt over regular shirts most of the time, and it turned out to be a conversation starter. When I saw a guy with the Packers' hat, I mentioned I was a stockholder. And so it went.

* Need proof that cell phones have taken over? We were on a train between Denali National Park and Anchorage, surrounded by, well, nothing but trees. A woman on our coach somehow got a cell signal, and asked one of her grandchildren all about the day's adventures in a voice that could have been heard in the Lower 48. It was probably worse than hearing about someone else's fantasy football team, without the opportunity to leave the room.

* One of my biggest questions beforehand was whether I'd need hiking boots. I opted to stick to sneakers, since we had no excursions through the wilderness, and that turned out to be a good decision. It's not easy to pack for a two-week trip, and free cubic inches are crucial.

* While tips are automatically taken from your account on the ship, no such system is in place on land. There are frequent reminders of that. On a train, an assistant in our car reminded us upon arrival that the lead guide had done a great job and should be "rewarded." On a plane, a small note was taped over the window that said "Tips are appreciated." Who knew Alaska had that in common with New York City?

* While on the ship, it was easy to tell where the major profit centers for the cruise company were. There are all sorts of invitations for drink specials and casino competitions. The library wasn't nearly as well promoted. OK, that wasn't a surprise. It was still a nice library, though, and we won a pin there for answering questions about Alaska's history one day.

* Speaking of profits, the ship had a relatively large jewelry store right on board. Admittedly, I am clueless on this particular subject, and know little about pricing. Were there bargains to be had? Search me.

Still, that was expected. But every town that had cruise ship ports also featured a stunning amount of jewelry stores in the midst of the usual t-shirt shops and ice cream stands. It was an odd mix in such places as Skagway, which has some town blocks restored to look like the days of the Klondike Gold Rush. I was told that it's a similar story in the Caribbean (the jewelry store, not the Klondike streets).

Meanwhile, every single t-shirt shop in Alaska has $49.95 raincoats marked down to $19.95. Every one. And the same make and model. It was an amazing coincidence.

* It's hard not to overhear conversations when waiting in line at the ship's customer service desk. Such stays are instructive, as the lead the bystander to want to scream out, "READ THE INSTRUCTIONS THAT WERE PLACED IN YOUR ROOM!" Our society obviously needs to read more, and not just when it comes to newspapers or blogs.

* Running is never far from my mind, no matter what the location. There wasn't time to do any in the first week of the trip, as the schedule was packed. But I did hit the treadmill a few times on the ship. It was a new experience to try to run when the foundation is swaying just a bit. All of a sudden, I had to hang on to the railing for support. That happened once in a while on the boat in general. You'd be amazed how tiring it is to constantly take that extra step to get your balance.

* Speaking of running, while in Skagway I saw an advertisement for a marathon that it was coming up for a few days. Therefore, I went into the visitors center and said, "I have an odd request - how do I get a shirt from the upcoming marathon?" I was directed to a store which was handling the logistics of the race, and the staff was thrilled that I was interested - one person told me all about the Girls on the Run program they have there. I bought a year-old marathon shirt for $10, a bargain by any standard.

Then a few days later, it didn't seem like a Saturday without a race. Luckily, the boat sponsored a 5-kilometer walk around the deck to benefit cancer research. About 35 of us walked to a middle deck and did 12 laps around the boat, and were rewarded with cookies and water. (No beer and pizza?) Even got a spiffy shirt out of it.

* This was state number 49 for me, so there's one to go. I'll get it Sooner or later.

Northern Europe, 2015: Across the Pond

Brilliance of the Seas - home for 13 days for 2,500 cruisers       

  

Travel is supposed to be educational, and a trip like this - complete with different languages and strange-looking money - qualifies. You wouldn't think I'd take pride in buying camera batteries in a Helsinki store - but I did. Here are some of the things that struck me as interesting while serving as a slightly naive European traveler as I went from the United States to Canada to the United Kingdom to Denmark to Estonia to Russia to Finland to Sweden to Denmark to the United Kingdom to Canada to the United States:

* Who was the big winner at the end of the Cold War? American business. We walked into a mall in Tallinn, Estonia, a place that has thrived since the Soviets left, and saw familiar stores and brands. With a few superficial changes, the mall could have been in any well-off U.S. area.

That's even true in St. Petersburg. The Cyrillic alphabet does tend to obscure some names, but McDonald's and Subway tended to jump out. There's one word that doesn't need to be translated to catch the attention of Russian shoppers when it is on a billboard: "Sale." And speaking of billboards there, it was funny to see one of the M-and-M characters depicted in that format.

* By the way, we visited six capital cities. I believe each one had an Irish pub, a Mexican restaurant, and a Texas steak house. Nothing says Denmark like some good ribs. 

* It really is true that you can get by in many European cities if you speak only English. That might not be true outside of tourist areas, but many service workers could deal with visitors quite well. I was surprised that many of the kiosks at attractions that had descriptions in two languages usually used English as the second one - even in Russia.

* The oddest scene of the trip might have come at the Hermitage, the famous museum in St. Petersburg. The biggest attraction in one of the zillion rooms in the place was a painting by Leonard da Vinci. Suddenly, a large group of Chinese tourists surged around the painting, leaving me crowded and a little scared. That was a first. I have felt that way at sporting events, but not in an art gallery. According to veteran travelers, life in China is of course overpopulated, and that has led to a different and smaller definition of "personal space" that what the West usually accepts.

* When we were getting ready to enter the Hermitage, it look us a while to cross the square to get to the entrance. Our group was there at the same time the St. Petersburg Marathon was finishing. I recognized the look of those runners who had taken more than five hours to complete the 26.2-mile distance. It's a universal expression.

Speaking of running, I did it a few times on the ship. On the first sail day, I used the treadmill - and was reintroduced to the concept of running on a platform that swayed with the waves. The running track was better, even when fog made the top of the ship a bit blurry when I looked at it.

* The best pre-trip advice I received was from someone who said not to worry too much about money. The ATMs generally are all connected, and credit cards are accepted in most places. I didn't have the chance to do much shopping in Russia, but the one souvenir store I entered took dollars, Euros, and credit cards. It really is a global village in some ways.

* In most of our European stops, we saw traffic lights that went from red to red and yellow, quickly followed by green. The only other time I've seen red and yellow on together was in New England, where it was used for pedestrian crossings. (It still may be, for all I know.) In Europe, it's almost like it's a signal to start revving the engine.

* There's a major business opportunity in Europe for a good shirt designer. Most of the souvenirs we saw in that area were rather boring. The exception was in Skagen, Denmark, an artsy resort area that had some specialists in that area and were rewarded by a brisk business.

* I think it's fair to say that it looked as if more people in Europe smoked than they do in America, but it didn't look like an overwhelming edge.

* Odd cultural moment: a small band greeted tourists at Catherine Palace. The song of choice: "Yellow Submarine." 

* I can't say I ever thought of the Baltic Sea as an Interstate Highway for ships before this, but it was true. At any given moment, we could see another big ship - usually a barge - in the distance.

* Cruisers (my shorthand for people who travel this way a lot) love to talk about the differences in ship lines, but - based on two experiences, Holland America last year and Royal Caribbean this year - the similarities are far greater than the differences. Our stateroom was almost a carbon copy of last year's home. The companies both made plenty of suggestions to drink, gamble, buy jewelry, and pose for photographs. Royal Caribbean might have been a little louder when it comes to promoting its upscale restaurants, ones that charge an extra fee for dining. Holland America does get credit for handing out a daily news summary from the New York Times. Without signing up for Wifi services, which is pricey, it was impossible to keep up with the outside world - so we didn't.

* Last year we couldn't imagine what it was like to be on the same boat with 1,200 people. This year we were on a boat with about twice that. That thought was a little scary, but Royal Caribbean did a good job of keeping the size of the lines for goods and services down. A little wait is to be expected at times like getting on board or getting luggage, but realistically that part was smooth. I will add that the food seemed a little better on Holland America. I would think feeding half as many people would provide a bit of an advantage in that department.

* The cruise lines try to keep the customers occupied when they are on board, particularly during "sail days" when the ships don't go to port. We often showed up for trivia games, and got to meet some nice people that way. Those contests were pretty tough to win, and not just because a few people might have used their phones to look up answers. With the United Kingdom and Australia well represented on board, some questions were geared in their direction - leaving some Americans stumped.

At one point in a game, I asked myself the question, "Do I really want to win a game about identifying disco songs?" I need not have worried, finishing well back in the pack. There was no such ambiguity about winning a game all about American history, particularly when it was played on July 4.

*  Most of the time it was hard to know that there were people with some serious money on the boat, even though you might have guessed that about people who were more than willing to pay $14 for a mixed drink. However, at certain points in the cruise economic class became apparent. That was on the so-called formal nights, when everyone was told to dress for dinner. Suddenly the children on board, who looked like typical kids the rest of the time, were in obviously expensive suits and dresses.

* The first show I saw on our ship featured an ABBA tribute band. I should have seen that coming. After all, this was a trip that featured a stop in Sweden, and ABBA made substantial contributions to the Swedish treasury over the years through record royalties. Besides, ABBA was popular starting in 1977, which means those in their late 50s know the songs well - and that's the start of the sweet spot of the cruising demographic. ABBA songs popped up at other times during the trip as well.

One act prompted some lively discussion after the show. Was the guy portraying Elton John in a tribute band actually playing the piano, or was the guy in the back row doing the work for him? Since "Elton" wasn't touching the foot pedals, most people guessed he was faking it. The entertainment star of the trip was a "comedy mind reader" named Mike McClean, who was quick and clever throughout his act.

* We had only been on a cruise ship once before, and the crowd on the Alaska trip last year was mostly American. This featured more of an international cast. It's hard not to bump into strangers on the big ships, if only because seating at the buffet restaurant is limited and you have to take any available seat. That means conversations can go in unexpected directions.

For example, I got plenty of lessons about immigration within the European Union. A worker from Poland can do better in the United Kingdom than he can at home, even if he takes less than the going rate for a skill. That's led to some hard feelings. I asked how Northern Ireland and Ireland were getting along these days, and was told that while the people didn't exactly trust each other, it was in their best interests to get along and so they did so - a little grudgingly.

The conversation could go the other way too. A couple of Europeans had followed the shootings in South Carolina, and wondered why Americans didn't do something about this obvious problem. It was hard to explain to them why American politicians used the mass killings as a launching point for a discussion about ... the Confederate flag. My guess is that the political leanings of the group as a whole are more conservative than the population at large. It costs a good-sized amount of money to travel this way.

Generally, though, the conversations stuck to travel. The cruising population is pretty well off and has seen a lot of the world. That often gives them a perspective and curiosity that doesn't come with day-to-day life for most. They helped make the trip a memorable experience.

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Iceland, 2016: Where the Sun Never Quite Set

"We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow." - "Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin

It was always difficult to say where you were in Iceland.


We came out of the Reykjavik airport (actually located 45 minutes away, in Keflavik) shortly before 1 a.m after a 5-1/2 hour flight from Toronto and the usual wait for customs and luggage. The sky looked like twilight - dark enough to put on car headlights, but light enough so that objects could still be seen in the distance.

It took some time for the bus to fill up with fellow visitors, and then the vehicle dropped off a few people along the way before arriving in Reykjavik at about 2:15. Along the way, we came to the realization that it was getting lighter outside.

Welcome to Iceland, late June edition.

Whenever we mentioned that we were headed to the North Atlantic country, the first question from others centered on the midnight sun. Yes, we did not see darkness for the entire nine-day trip. The day we were in Akureyri on the north coast, sunset was at 12:50 a.m., and sunrise was at 1:25 a.m. So it never became completely dark. That made it important to make sure the curtains in hotel rooms covered up as much of the windows as possible. On the other hand, walking down a fully lit street after 10 p.m. is a unique experience.

We took a bus tour of Iceland with 19 others that covered more than 2,000 kilometers over the course of a week, seeing a couple of cities, a few towns or villages, waterfalls, deserts, glaciers, mountains, hot springs. and sheep - lots of sheep. I have posted notes on individual locations (with photos) on my travel blog; do a search for Iceland. Here are some observations, with the help of some members of the group who turned from strangers to friends in much less than a week:

 * One of the odd parts of a trip to Iceland is that a look at the words of an Icelandic location provided no clue to English-speaking people on how to say it. There are 36 letters in their alphabet, and some combinations of letters produce unknown sounds to English speakers. When we were in Egilsstaoir (missing a squiggle under the o), no one had an idea about how to say it - so we didn't. The volcano that blew up in 2010, causing air travel problems for the world, is called Eyjafjallaokull. There are YouTube videos with instructions on how to say that one. T-shirts spell it out phonetically - AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuuti-uh. And good luck.

Names are no better. Our bus tour guide said her name once, but she thankfully said to just call her Steffi. The bus driver's name was the same story but he provided no snappy nickname. After he introduced himself on the bus, I let out a stage whisper, "Let's call him Skip." It got a good laugh, and the name stuck for some through the trip.

* We figured the bus tour would be tiring, as we had to change hotels every night for five straight nights, and it was. It led to a feeling of "If it's Sunday, it must be Reykjahlio" at times. But there were plenty of stops along the way to break up the drives, so we saw a lot and no one collapsed. No complaints here.

* Looking for a trip to a foreign country where communicating is easy? Iceland is your place. Just about everyone speaks English. All of the major signs that tourists see have both languages printed on them - along the lines of Canada's use of English and French. However, all of the television outlets from Iceland used Islandic, and a daily English newspaper didn't seem to be available anywhere. Therefore, it was tough to keep up with the latest news of the host country. Interestingly, a  Presidential election took place early in our stay, and we had no idea who won until an Internet search produced a result. (There were no roadside signs for candidates, either, come to think of it.)

* We did happen to be visiting when Iceland had its "Miracle on Grass" moment. The national soccer team had qualified for the Euro soccer tournament for the first time, causing a bit of a frenzy, and then advanced to the round of 16. There mighty England awaited, but Iceland came through with a 2-1 win. England's population - 51 million; Iceland's - 330,000. We could hear fireworks from our hotel in East Iceland. How embarrassing was the loss? The coach of the English national team immediately resigned after the game. Soccer has grown in popularity in Iceland as more and more fields have added artificial turf.

* There were English stations on cable television - mostly from the BBC. They devoted much air time to the Brexit vote. That result dismayed our new British friends who were traveling on our tour, and not just because they had to watch the trip become more expensive by the day as the pound suffered a beating in international currency trading. 

* A quick note on weather is required. It rained a little every day, but usually only for a short time. Temperatures were in the low 50s under mostly cloudy skies. Apparently that rare 70-degree day sends everyone running to the beaches (just to relax, not to swim in the freezing waters), but none of that took place while we were there.

* The hotel rooms were on the small side by American standards. They were missing top sheets, meaning we slept directly under a nice quilt, and clocks. The showers were a little claustrophobic, which was surprising in a place where people shower naked together (men and women are in separate rooms, for the record) before heading into the hot springs. One of our rooms did not have a bar on the floor to prevent shower water from flowing all over the bathroom - causing a small flood. The room did come with a squeegee, though, which was a first.

A native gives me advice on what to see in Iceland. He was a little stiff.
* Speaking of missing, there are no good sweatshirts in all of Iceland. Anywhere. I looked. There are a few clever t-shirts, including one that used the quote at the top of the story. But sweatshirts didn't get more witty than the one that read "Iceland." There were no long-sleeve t-shirts, either. Say, isn't this country right below the Arctic Circle? We told Steffi that she should quit the tour business and sell sweatshirts and flower seeds (none of those around either). "Steffi's Shirts and Seeds" would clean up.

* Iceland is an expensive country to visit. Just about everything but wool (remember, lots of sheep) has to be imported, which adds up after a while. Lunch for two was in the range of $35 unless you had a couple of tasty Icelandic hot dogs (they add a bit of lamb to them). A small soft drink was at least $3. Salads were relatively scarce on menus, and pricey when found. A 1,000-krona note is worth $8.16, at least as of this writing, which caused some mental mathematics whenever we looked at prices. One other point about prices - tipping is more or less not allowed in Iceland. Natives consider it a handout, so it is included in the price. You'd be surprised how helpful that is for tourists.  

* Driving can be an adventure in Iceland, as few roads outside of Reykjavik have more than two lanes and the rural areas feature many dirt roads. As a result, collision shop owners do well there. We had thought about renting a car and driving around Iceland ourselves, but letting Skip do the driving proved to be a good decision. If you are interested, the country is slightly smaller than Kentucky.

* Iceland is a place for serious photographers. We saw several people at the major attractions with large cameras and plenty of extra equipment, such as tripods. Last year on our European cruise, we saw a far greater percentage people using tablets - which, at least to me, shouts out "amateur." I will say, though, that some phone cameras are good enough to take quality photographs these days. 

* Someone asked about the lack of wildlife on display in parks, shorelines, etc. Then we all realized that most animals never could migrate to Iceland. There are plenty of birds, though, including the cute-as-can-be puffins. The island also is home to about 100,000 horses - one for every three people, more or less.

* For what it's worth, there was a surprising amount of graffiti in Reykjavik - more than you'd think in an area with less than 250,000 people. We asked a few people about it, and we got answers ranging from drugs to immigrants.

* The "Buffalo is the center of the universe theory" was proven a couple of times on the trip in casual conversation. (As you may know, there's always some connection to Buffalo, no matter where you go.) We were chatting with a couple of Americans when I mentioned I was from Buffalo. "Oh, one of my best friends works for the Buffalo News." After a few stories about co-worker Sue Schulman, we became pals in no time. And Steffi trained at Roswell Park Cancer Institute during the 1970s, spending several years in Buffalo. Amazing.

Iceland has plenty of natural wonders scattered around the country, and people - native and visiting - are welcoming and friendly. It made for a fine vacation.

It's always nice to return home - or at least to the Toronto airport.



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Sunday, April 7, 2024

Central Europe, 2018: The Boat People

                                               

We had been waiting to take a river cruise on the "Great Rivers of Europe" since January, when we signed up through Grand Circle Cruise Lines. It would be three weeks of August fun, visiting five nations in 21 days - some of them slated to be viewed on a luxury boat moving at a leisurely pace through beautiful scenery. It would be the longest trip of our lives. 

Then came the email a few days before we headed to Amsterdam. Due to a drought in Europe, water levels had dropped to unsafe levels in certain portions of the planned route. So everyone would be hopping on a bus for a couple of nights and taken to a hotel. All right, the packing and unpacking of three weeks' of clothes would be a pain, but we'd adapt.

But once we got on the boat named Rhapsody, we were told that conditions had become worse. The ship could get no further up the river than Koblenz, Germany. Two nights off the boat had become six. Details to come.

And that's when about 127 people became "boat people": refugees from their homes on the Rhapsody. When those six days were over, those same 127 people looked rather tired as they boarded the Adagio - located on the other side of the Continental Divide from the Rhapsody. One tourist had broken an arm along the way, and another had bumped his head after fainting because of dehydration, suffering a few bruises. The Program Directors may have been even more tired than the tourists, because they had to deal with everyone's endless questions as an entirely different itinerary was created essentially on the fly. They were remarkably poised under the circumstances.
Some of the tourists no doubt visited the lounge
for an adult beverage after returning
to a boat after six nights in the "wilderness."

No one was looking for sympathy because they had to haul luggage a few times and stay at four-star hotels in fabulous German cities. Still, it was a different experience than what was anticipated - sometimes better, sometimes worse. We finished in Prague with a crash course on European history, geography and culture.

 When someone asks me, "How was your trip?", words such as excellent and fascinating comes to mind but don't quite cut it. I like to come up with a full story - mostly to get some easily forgettable observations down on paper before they pass away. This time, I asked some of my fellow passengers what they noticed along the way, and they came through nicely with suggestions for this article. Thanks to them for the help. Some notes could be essays in themselves, others are shorter subjects, and some are trivial to silly, but all reflect on what for us what a unique experience. 

One last rule - a long vacation means a long blog. Don't say you weren't warned. 

BUT FIRST, A RELEVANT JOKE 

Heaven in Europe is where
the English are the policemen
the French are the cooks
the German are the mechanics
the Italians are the lovers
and the Swiss organize everything.

Hell in Europe is where
the German are the policemen
the English are the cooks
the French are the mechanics
the Swiss are the lovers
and the Italians organize everything.
THE CRUISE

   * The first thing you'll notice about the passengers on a Grand Circle cruise is their composition. I was told that I'd probably be the youngest passenger on the boat, and that seemed to be true. The vast majority were over 70, prompting someone to say that a Grand Circle boat was actually an "elderly hostel" in disguise. I'm not sure how comfortable anyone under the age of 60 would be in these circumstances.
    The group consisted of almost all Americans; I think there was a stray couple from Ontario along for the ride. Many guests were predictably from the Sun Belt. Everyone seemed to be in the same demographic - not truly wealthy but comfortable enough to take a trip like this. (To put it another way, we heard stories about washing clothes in the sink that matched our experiences.) This was good and bad. It certainly made initial conversations easier, as many had been around the United States a lot and had stories to share. One woman from Chicago often came to Buffalo in the past to see relatives that lived on - wait for it - our street!
   But I didn't feel like a great fit with many of those on board, perhaps because I'm still doing a lot in "retirement." I'm a little more in the present than some retirees, and that's a bit of a potential barrier. Besides, some of the other international trips I've taken have featured people from other countries. Conversations with those tourists have been fascinating. There was none of that here, and I missed it.
   The group had its quirks. For example, attention spans could be a little short. Announcements were made one minute, and then asked to be repeated by someone the next. Elsewhere, I saw some passengers in place in a hotel lobby, patiently waiting for a departure time that was more than an hour away. They weren't going to miss that bus.
   The touring encompassed plenty of walking, and I'd bet that many of those on board - some of whom needed canes - probably overestimated their ability to handle the physical load. The strain of the extra bus rides probably didn't help either. They must have been really tired upon returning home.
   I didn't see many signs of the passengers acting spoiled or privileged. An exception - one person thought it was pretty funny that a staff member accented the wrong syllable of a word during a public announcement. I was tempted to say, "How would you do on pronouncing the biggest words in your fourth language?"
   Eventually, though, people found other passengers that were a good fit in personality, and joy grew exponentially. We laughed at one person's reaction to going on a subway for the first time in her life, and watched her delight when she found out the line went under the river in Prague. ("REALLY?!?") When we were back from our adventures on the streets of the latest city, others couldn't wait to hear them - sort of like what the ideal mom does when the kids come back from doing something special. ("Tell me all about it!") Departure Day is always a bit emotional in such circumstances, with plenty of "If ever you are in Altoona ..." moments heard during goodbye hugs.

   *  On the big ocean liners, there is plenty of pressure to spend extra money. Go to the fancy restaurants to order big meals. Buy drink packages, Go look at jewelry. Check out the casino. Go on elaborate outings in port.
   There wasn't much of that here. Beer, wine and soft drinks were all covered. They'd sell you some mixed drinks at the bar if you insisted on it. I'm not sure if the unlimited availability of such beverages was a primary attraction for this crowd, but not too many people passed up beer or wine with lunch or dinner. The food was more than acceptable; I only had to go off the menu for a hamburger once, And passengers' birthdays were properly celebrated with sparklers placed in cakes. 

The rooms on the ship were not exactly spacious.
I had to go outside of it to change my mind.
   * Speaking of comparisons, the two types of ships had similar rooms. The river boat's rooms featured twin beds that folded into the wall to reveal a couch of sorts underneath. It was rather uncomfortable as a place to rest during the day, and we learned quickly to ask housekeeping to leave the bed down at all times.
   That was very necessary early in the trip for me thanks to a pesky cough and some sneezing. I skipped some events in favor of naps. Going on a long international trip? Bring some cold medicine just in case, or be prepared to figure out how to buy Nyquil in a Cologne pharmacy.

   * The idea behind these trips is for groups to take outings around the port city during the morning, have them go off on their own in the afternoon, and then sail to the next city overnight. That plan was derailed when we were off the boat, as solo wanderings were cut down by necessary bus trips between locations.
   We spent three nights in Frankfurt and three nights in Nuremberg. They are wonderful cities, and it was a joy to get to know them a bit this way. But a side-effect was that there was no break in the action, as the group visited a different city every day until we arrived in Prague for a trip extension (three full days of touring there). Some people skipped some activities just to catch a breath. The stops tend to blend together in memory now, with one German historic district looking like the next.

   * Much of the crew from the two boats was from Eastern Europe, particularly in the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia. Their English was a little weak in spots, but they seemed good-natured enough - particularly when they put on a little show for the passengers. 

   * A tip of the hat goes to Grand Circle for setting some interesting discussions and presentations. We heard from an expert of Jewish history talk about the Holocaust, a political scientist who briefed us on the current situation in Germany,  and a refugee who had gone from Syria to Austria in order to find hope over the course of more than a year. We also saw a glass-blowing demonstration - he sold a lot of stuff afterwards - and visited a house for coffee and cake to chat about Germany life. (To that last point, shame on the other visitors in our group of 10 who didn't bring some sort of gift along to our hostess.)

A MEMORY

   We had been scheduled to cruise down an interesting part of the Rhine, with castles and charming towns along the way. But the water was too low for our boat, so we had to take a commercial trip instead. At the end of the three-hour voyage, which was slowed by the low levels of water, our group gathered at a restaurant for an authentic German dinner in Ruedesheim.

   The food was rather bland and tasteless, even for me, but the highlight was the promised German folk band. I will forever maintain that this band played the oddest set in music history. "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" was followed by "Take Me Home, Country Roads." There was "The Happy Wanderer." A polka version of "The Birthday Song." "Sweet Caroline." Some songs in German popped up once in a while. When "The Chicken Dance" broke out and a line extended around the restaurant, people outside of the facility came rushing to the door to see what the heck was going on. They were turned away.

   The night closed with the band playing that German beer hall favorite, "Hallelujah."

THE CULTURE

   * Even today, it is still hard to escape the presence of World War II in Central Europe.
   Many of the cities we visited were more than 90 percent destroyed by Allied forces in an effort to destroy morale among the Germans. Whether it was necessary or not at that stage of the war (early 1945) is one for the historians. But the rise of the Nazi party from 1933 to 1945 still hangs in the air in that nation, more felt than seen.

   * No one yelled out "American swine!" as our tourist group went by. Even so, conversations with people who lived across the sea from me certainly indicated that the current administration in Washington is less than popular in Central Europe these days.
   I got the sense that the political polarization in America was packed with the luggage by those on the cruise. In other words, some were hesitant to give comments about developments in America, even as Michael Cohen was accepting a plea bargain. It was easy to tune out the world to a degree, since CNN International and CNBC Europe usually were the only useful television channels that were available. But wi-fi was available on the boat and in most city locations, so information was as close as a smartphone. Therefore, when an initial conversation indicated that people were on the same sides of the political spectrum, the words came tumbling out. 
   I did have one moment of conflict, at least internally. We were in Room 600 of the building where the famous Nuremberg trials were held after World War II. The room is still used, and over the judges' heads on the wall was a Catholic cross. The guide pointed out that Bavaria was a Catholic region, and that part of the country had recently allowed such symbols in its court rooms.
   With that, a woman in front of me started to applaud, as did a few others in the room. I was very tempted to say to her, "What part of the separation of church and state don't you agree with?" But it certainly wasn't the time or place for that.

   * Germany is cooking right now economically. Admittedly, we stuck to generally prosperous areas, but the Germans are clearly doing something right. It was particularly noticeable in Frankfurt, a city I knew almost nothing. It is becoming Germany's New York while Berlin is the nation's Washington.
   Germany tried to achieve a superior place in the world through guns in the 20th century on two occasions, and failed spectacularly (thankfully). It might have better luck wielding checkbooks in this century.

   * Speaking of politics, it's interesting that right-wing parties are gaining strength in Germany and left-wingers bordering on Communist tendencies are in key positions in the Czech Republic. Didn't they learn anything from the past?

Yes, they sell a lot of beer in Germany.
I finished this particular glass
.
   * Do you like cheap beer? Central Europe is your ideal destination. In some places it was cheaper than Coca-Cola or bottled water, particularly when calculated by the ounce. It was all local brands too. As one person in Germany put it, "You can drink Budweiser, or you can drink beer."
   As for soft drinks, the marketing department for Pepsi needs to work harder in Germany. I don't think I saw anything but Coke in the whole country. Soft drinks were served somewhere between chilly and cold, but never ice cold, and portions were surprisingly small at restaurants.

   * Someone came up with a rule for the service in restaurants - the farther the trip went along, the smaller the smiles of restaurant workers became. The pace of service was quite slow too, and it was tough to find someone to order a second drink. But the attendants sure were fast at clearing your plates, not even pausing to ask permission.
   And if you choose to eat outside, which almost everyone in Europe did during a record heat wave, be prepared for company in the form of yellow jackets.

   * There aren't many places to buy clever t-shirts in Europe yet. Give credit to the person in Austria who came up with one with the outline of a certain hopping animal from the Southern Hemisphere with the caption "No Kangaroos in Austria." Luckily a store called Blue in Prague is filled with original items; head there for all your shopping needs.

   * The rock band Kraftwerk came to mind as we drove on Germany's famous Autobahn. ("Fun, fun, fun ...") There were speed limits on the relatively crowded sections, ranging from 50 to 75 mph depending on conditions. It's a modern, efficient system.
   Even the rest stops had their interesting quirks. Change is needed to access the pay toilets, which caused some purchases at the 7-11-type store nearby. There visitors could check out the magazines, which in a couple of cases had topless women on the cover. You don't see that on the New York State Thruway.
   Now that I've put the 1970s song in your head, here's a video:

   * The entire trip was spent in the Central European time zone, which is six hours ahead of East Coast time. This came with some oddities. When I got up at 7 a.m., the West Coast baseball games still were not over. When I turned on the TV at 3 p.m., the only American channels were usually CNN and CNBC Europe. The stock market hadn't even opened yet.

   * Europe has cigarette machines in public places (ID needed for purchase), women with green hair, too much graffiti in most cities, bicycles by the droves (especially in Amsterdam), much more public smoking than America, far more hats with Yankee logos than ones for the Red Sox (boo!), plenty of McDonald's and Starbucks (with a Mexican restaurant in Prague), diesel gasoline that costs less than regular, a 25-cent deposit on bottles (Germany, where the Green Party has essentially won the argument about the necessity for saving the environment - America take note), toilets with two buttons - one for each, um, use, plenty of bookstores and ice cream stands, and no seedless watermelons.

   * The flight from Prague to Philadelphia took nine hours and 18 minutes, and we went back six hours in time in the process. Therefore, August 25 lasted 30 hours for me - the longest day of my life. Literally.

   Early in the flight, someone tried to adjust some overhead luggage - and a bag came out of the container and hit me squarely on the head. Ugh. Luckily it was a soft-shell case. But if someone wants to introduce a Constitutional Amendment forcing airlines to enforce tougher rules about the size of carry-on items, he or she has my support. It is a jungle out there, particularly on the big international flights.

A TRUE STORY

The helicopter pad has to be here somewhere.
   The Hotel Manager said he was asked if the crew stayed on the boat over night. He asked for the question to be repeated out of disbelief, and it was done so.

   "No, they stay in nearby hotels," he answered sarcastically. "We fly them in on helicopters. They arrive on deck at 5 a.m. to start preparing for the day."

   The Hotel Manager thought little about it for a couple of weeks. Then he heard from his boss, who called to roar, "What is going on with your ship?" The HM didn't know what he meant, and the Boss explained that he had gotten a survey back from an unsatisfied customer.

   "The food was great, the crew was wonderful, and the cities were beautiful," the note read, "but I will never stay on a Grand Circle boat again. I never got enough sleep because of the noisy helicopters that were landing on the deck at 5 a.m. to let the crew off."

HIGHLIGHTS

   We try to accumulate memories on trips like this. There were a bunch of them here.

   * We toured Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, and saw first-hand how she and her family hid from the Nazis for years - only to be captured and executed when the Allies were almost within sight of the Netherlands.

   * We were surrounded by hundreds of years of history just by walking into the courtyards of the Heidelberg Castle. The immense complex has been around in one form or another for almost 800 years, perhaps before the Magna Carta was signed. It's been unused since 1764 - before the American Revolution - but still fascinates to this day.  (By the way, travel writer Rick Steves puts down Heidelberg as a waste of time. He is wrong.)
   * We stood in the area in Nuremberg where the Nazis put on tremendous rallies in order to generate support for their policies, and then sat in the courtroom where they paid for those policies.

   * We listened to one of the world's largest organs of its type belt out some religious music in a 30-minute concert at a church in Passau, Germany. 

   * We heard the music of Mozart and Strauss in a live concert in a beautiful music house in Vienna. Yes, they played "The Blue Danube," where we slept on the boat that night. The next morning, I saw the building where the Congress of Vienna took place in 1814-15.

   * We stood by the building in Bratislava where the Peace of Pressburg was signed in 1805, which marked the demise of the last piece of the Roman Empire.

   * We walked in Wenceslas Square in Prague, almost 50 years to the day from when Soviet tanks came to crush the sliver of freedom that Czechoslovakia had tried to carve out. It also was in that very square in 1989 when Vaclav Havel announced to the people of that country that the Communist government had resigned.

   * We had breakfast in Vienna, lunch in Bratislava, and dinner in Prague on the same day - three meals in three world capitals. This is a record that will never be broken.

   That's a lot of memories, and it doesn't even include the personal moments with new friends accumulated along the way. Good thing I didn't have to declare them at customs.  
 

France, 2019: Planes, trains, automobiles and a boat


(I've moved this essay from 2019 about our trip to France here from another blog. It's a better fit.)

 I was walking toward the Eiffel Tower on my first day in Paris. Apparently my subconscious mind already was working hard on my lead to this blog because I started singing this to myself:

“I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. There was nobody calling me up for favors. And no one's future to decide.”

That’s Joni Mitchell’s song about her trip to Paris with the president of her record label. David Geffen didn’t like the way the words portrayed him, but he probably changed his mind when “Free Man in Paris” was released as a single and became one of Mitchell’s biggest hits.  

We spent 16 days on a vacation that wound its way from Paris to Nice in France with a side trip to Monaco. About a week was spent cruising down the Rhone River in a group of about 40 other Americans. As usual, I took notes about what we noticed about our trip along the way and asked our new friends who joined us on the tour for their thoughts too.  I learn a lot about where I have been that way. Therefore, this admittedly lengthy report is not about what we saw, but about what we experienced.

The City of Lights

Paris is a lovely city, especially when viewed
from the Eiffel Tower.

* There’s no easy way to cross the ocean by plane and be anything but tired. We flew from Buffalo to Charlotte, sat around for four hours, and flew to Paris with a 6:55 a.m. arrival time. The best way to say how tired I was is that some days later I was asked if there were movies on the flight. “I watched two of them – one was about Bill Murray, and the other was … um … I have no recollection of what the other one was,” I answered.

* They really celebrate their holidays in France. On the morning of May 1 (Labor Day or May Day), the usually crowded streets were empty. Few businesses were open, except for some restaurants that probably catered to tourists. We missed a couple of planned visits to attractions because of that. A week later, we were in town for V-E Day, yet another holiday that closed many businesses.

* Meanwhile on May Day, thousands gathered to protest government policies. More than 100 were arrested. Some of the metro (subway) stops were closed for security reasons.We couldn’t get near the Arc de Triomphe; access was blocked by well-armed military troops. In fact, the nation was on its highest alert for security, and military types were very visible in almost all potentially crowded areas.

* If you are interested in fine dining, Paris obviously is the place to be. We saw not one, but two Five Guys hamburger places there. McDonald’s and Starbucks were everywhere, while Burger King had a small presence. More seriously, there are cafes and restaurants all over the place, with a few on almost every block. For an expensive city, food prices were actually quite reasonable. However, soft drinks were outrageous, unless you think a bottle of Coke Zero without ice cubes is worth 4.50 Euros. Footnote - It is a tough place to buy a salad, for whatever reason.
The roof of Lafayette Commons was spectacular.

* The malls of Western New York aren’t doing well, but they have evolved into something quite successful in Paris. Population density may have something to do with that, of course. In any event, Galeries Lafayette is the big shopping spot in the big cities, and it has a fabulous building in Paris that was near our hotel. The building features an atrium with a beautiful roof and a skywalk with a glass floor. It helps that there are plenty of tourists in the area, and they seemed anxious to spend money. There was a line to get into the Chanel and Louis Vuitton sections of the building. That was a mall first for me.

 * Paris needs a little work on its cheap commercialism. You couldn’t find an original or interesting t-shirt in the city limits.

* Visitors hear about the problem of pickpockets almost everywhere in Paris, as well as in Lyon and Nice. Theft from tourists almost sounds like it provides a good-sized portion of the GDP. If you are planning a trip, take appropriate measures like the purchase of a money belt.

* My friend from another cruise, Gail Alderton, once said to me, "You must go to Paris." She was right. 

Turning the tables

Jody’s knowledge of her high school French lessons paid off nicely throughout the trip, as she could understand a bit of what was going around us and point us in the proper directions. Meanwhile, my elective of Spanish in those school years was of no use. But then we ran into a family from Argentina at the shopping center in Paris, and my shaky knowledge of that language came back to life briefly.

After I explained that I spoke “muy, muy poco” (very, very little) Spanish after taking three years of it in school, we talked a little in a combination of Spanish and English. The three women were delighted. When they said they were leaving Paris that night, I said, “Que lastima!” (What a pity!), which I think I learned in my first month of lessons in seventh grade. And when we split up, I said, “Adios! Buena suerte (good luck)!”, putting a big smile on their faces. 

You’d be surprised how much fun it was.

Rolling on the river
 
* Cruising usually is associated with the big ships on the oceans. This was not one of them. Our boat this time was about a third as crowded as the one we took in Central Europe last year, with about 42 passengers. One nice feature was that the rooms were downright spacious by cruise standards. In other words, you could turn around in the shower without opening the door.

* Grand Circle sometimes brings in guest speakers to its event, and we had a couple of unusual ones. The first was Jean Nallit, a man who worked on the French Resistance during World War II. As a forger, he saved the lives of several Jews who were slated to go to the death camps. Yes, he’s 96 now, but he’s still doing OK. It was remarkable to hear a first-person account of experiences, which included a stay in a concentration camp. When he was released, he was so thin (76 pounds) that his mother didn’t even recognize him when they were reunited after the war.  By any definition. Nallit is a hero. Also, two people from the “Yellow Vest” protest groups took time to talk with our group and answer questions about their activities. The protesters seem to have some energy, but no obvious place to direct it and no clear leadership. Apparently, they get on Facebook and say, “Where should we protest on Saturday?” Unless they set up a clear path for progress to a particular destination and find some leadership, it’s hard to believe they will do more than cause honked horns by drivers who can't get by them.

* Some of the boat tours through Grand Circle feature variety shows from the crew. We had such a small boat (13 crew members or so) that such a show was impossible, so they took questions for more than an hour instead one night. They were mostly Eastern Europeans (Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia) and in their 40s, so I asked how the end of Communism had changed their lives. That hit a nerve. The answer from about four crew members ran for about 20 minutes and had plenty of passion. It was clear that they didn’t miss Communism, where everyone you meet is a potential spy for the government.  However, there was a sense that they miss the safety net of the old regime. Many people have realized that there’s not much opportunity for advancement in the Old Country, and the people there need to flee to the West for a better life. That "brain drain" has left those Eastern European countries behind economically. I also asked about influences on their culture: movies, television, music, sports, etc. They all quickly answered that everything in those areas came from America.

* A story: Jaroslav, the hotel manager, talked about how a woman came up to him at the front desk and asked, "How does the ship get its power when it is not in port?" He was feeling silly that day, so he said, "We have a long cord that is plugged in at the city of origin, and it unrolls as we go from city to city."

Our traveling party visits a bull farm in Southern France.
* Grand Circle markets its tours to Americans, so again the conversations weren’t as international in nature as the ones we’ve had on a big ship. However, this was a bright group, and some interesting chats did take place. Within a period of a couple of days, I talked with different people about the lessons offered by France’s military defeat in colonial Southeast Asia in 1954, inter-faith marriages, and abusive sport coaches. A woman asked me whether I had ever interviewed one of my boyhood idols. I told her about one such interview - it was difficult it was to talk to Carl Yastrzemski at a baseball game in Toronto for that reason. No one had ever asked me that question before.

* Speaking of marketing, Grand Circle’s approach to touring apparently appeals to those in the 70-79 age-group, as we say in the running community. Some were older than that, and a few were well above that. Those most senior of senior citizens didn’t take part in all of the programs, but had a good time by all accounts. At the other end of the spectrum, we weren’t the youngest this time like we had been in 2018. A family reunion of nine was part of the group, and four of them were sons and their significant others. I told one of the young ladies that if they ever wanted to talk to someone who didn’t remember the Korean War, we were there to help. She laughed. Without them, though, we would have been the kids on board again.

* The food was quite good, with an emphasis on French cuisine. Remember, this is from America’s fussiest eater, so it’s high praise. I think I could come to like Crepes Suzette on a regular basis. We made sure to do plenty of walking during the day and not drink too much alcohol in order to be able to fit into our clothes upon returning. Others weren’t so, um, dedicated – but that’s part of the attraction for some. To each his or her own.  

* Let’s salute our program director, Martin, for his effort throughout the trip. He worked extremely hard for all 16 days (plus a post-trip extension that we missed) without missing a beat, even when he was a bit sick for a while. Martin was always in good humor and full of enthusiasm, and knew the highlights of the visited cities forwards and backwards. He even put up with me when at one point I started to snore loudly when he started to sing a lullaby into the bus’ p-a system on a drive. (That got a surprisingly big laugh, by the way.) You couldn’t tip him enough for what he did; let’s hope he received enough to take a nice vacation of his own somewhere.

The rest of France
One of the best war memorials is in Nice, near the waterfront.

* It was mentioned along the way that there are three ingredients that are crucial to French booking: butter, butter and butter. You didn’t need to put any on your morning croissant to taste the stuff.
 
* There appears to be three basic industries in France: the manufacturing of bread, wine and cheese. They were ever-present throughout the country, and according to all reports were always good. A friend of mine reminded me before the trip that “If you haven’t had a bottle of wine by 11 a.m., you are playing catch-up the rest of the day.”

* As you’d guess, English is fairly common in the tourist areas of Paris. Most merchants can at least get by. It was less common for the other portions of the journey.

* You’d expect plenty of tributes to the heroes of World War II, and they were present throughout France. It’s interesting, though, that World War I is still well remembered in many places in the form of monuments, street names, heroes, etc. France obviously suffered incredible losses in the earlier conflict, but the tributes are noticeable for someone coming from an American perspective. World War I doesn't come up much on this side of the pond.

* Europe has much more smoking than the United States, and the French seem to be the leaders in that category. It’s a great country for walks as long as you can find some clean air to breathe along the way.

* As best as we could figure out from the road signs, the speed limit on the big highways goes down a bit when it rains. That’s not a bad idea. However, it is interesting – if not scary – to consider that wine is sold at Thruway rest stops. Driving is not cheap in France. We spent an afternoon with a French family, who said it costs about 75 Euros to fill the tank. Whew. Many cars are indeed tiny, particularly in urban areas where the streets are not exactly boulevards.

* Speaking of driving, the French certainly love their traffic circles. There are about 30,000 scattered around the country. The rotaries force drivers to pay attention - according to a book I once read on traffic - so the accident rate drops in such spots. However, the Arc de Triomphe features six roads coming into a circle without a yield sign in sight. We went through the area on the way to Versailles, and we needed a “discomfort bag” like they hand out on airplanes.

* You’d think France would be a little less stingy with the size and number of its napkins. There weren't many paper towels in the bathrooms either.

* We took a high-speed bullet train out of Paris (right) to get to the boat on the Rhone River in Central France. It supposedly hits 180 mph at certain points, and it was funny to see it swiftly pass the cars on the big highways along the way. I can report the ride is smooth and comfortable.

* When we were riding on the subway in Lyon, we were serenaded by a street musician who was playing an accordion. So much for the old saying, then, that a gentleman is “someone who knows how to play the accordion … and doesn’t.” The music seemed almost continental in that setting.

* Does every city in France have a carousel?

* While in Viviers, we were introduced to a French game called p├ętanque. It’s a great deal like bocce, as players have to get large balls next to a small target ball by throwing it a good-sized distance. As my friends have said, I’m a good athlete when my feet aren’t moving (which covers most sports, by the way). Therefore, I got the hang of the game quite quickly. I wonder if there is a professional league I can join.

* One key observation from Jody: She was surprised and disappointed that users of the hair dryers must hold the "on button" in order to prevent it from turning off. 

* There’s one common problem in the cities of France: what my mother used to call “dog stuff.” One local tour guide said that residents often let their dogs run around the city streets, and – using a nice phrase – don’t monitor their “production.” Martin called the gifts from our four-footed friends “landmines,” and we all learned to look down frequently while walking.

* The French people say they don’t consider Jerry Lewis a god. So let’s put that one to rest right now.

* For those who like to count the countries they’ve visited, which covers almost all of us, the idea of a morning trip to Monaco was irresistible. It’s less than a square mile in size, a postage stamp in the world community. You don’t need a passport to enter the country. However, if you want to get that document stamped, you can do so. The Tourist Information booth at the train station will be happy to add a bright red color to your otherwise drab passport page.

Another Saturday, another protest in Nice.

* At one point, we got off the train in Nice after coming in from Monaco, and found ourselves in the midst of a Saturday protest by the Yellow Vests. There were drums and whistles by the few hundred people involved, not including the police presence. They marched several blocks to the big town square, and we never felt threatened walking behind the group. However, they sure messed up traffic patterns for a while.

* At the end of the trip, I had to use the business center of a hotel to check in for our flights home. When I started to use the computer, I quickly discovered that I was typing something close to gibberish. No remarks please – it was because it was a different keyboard. A few of the letters were in the “wrong” position (z was where the w usually is for us), and the numbers could only be typed by hitting the shift key.

Postscript

When we got on the plane from London to Chicago, as part of the illogical trip home from Nice to Buffalo, we were happy to see that we had boarded a 747. I told a flight attendant that it was a first, and she said, “Rows and rows.” We sat in Row 52, and there were more people upstairs. That’s one big plane; I still don’t know how it gets off the ground.

Our seats had a video screen, and British Airways offered a wide variety of movies to make the eight-hour trip go faster. I saw three, and was almost willing to go on to Los Angeles for a couple of more. In looking over the vast listings, I saw that “Whiplash” was available – starring J.K. Simmons.
 
And then it came to me: I had watched “The Front Runner,” featuring Simmons, on the way over.

Mystery solved.

Let’s hope all of the memories on such great trips in the future don’t disappear, but last a lifetime.