What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 5 (Fear and Loathing in Berlin)

Sunday, August 19 was the first full day of our nine-day Baltic cruise, and when I say “fulI” mean full.

It was one hell of a long day. We docked in Warnemunde (the port of the city of Rostock), on the coast, and took a train three hours south to Berlin. We were driven all over the city in a motorcoach (with frequent stops to get out and poke listlessly at things) and then…

Well, that’s the fun part of the story.

Our second to last stop on the route was the Kurfürstendamm, the area of former West Berlin that has all the shops and that served (kind of) as “downtown” when West and East Berlin were still separated. Only it was Sunday. In Germany, everything closes on a Sunday. Why’d they schedule a stop in Berlin on a day you couldn’t do any shopping? Well, the Norwegian Cruise Lines Baltic Nine-Day Cruise lasts, um, nine days … and the cruises are scheduled back to back to back, so I guess it was inevitable that one of the cruises would have its Berlin stop on a Sunday. When the stores are all closed. But… that didn’t stop our tour guide (a otherwise lovely woman) from telling us we had an hour and a half to “explore”.

But then we went off to the train, right?

No. Then we went to a park that wasn’t on our itinerary, a park dedicated to the history of the Berlin wall, and hung out there for a bit. Then we got back on the motorcoach and headed off to the train. Or did we? No, we drove in big circles through Berlin neighborhoods and eventually wound back up at that same park. Our guide says “Isn’t it wonderful? We get to spend more time here!”

At that point I stuck up a hand and said “Um, is there a problem with the train or something?”

And she flushed and said “well, yes.” She had been trying her damndest to keep us happy since she (like a lot of tour guides) got a lot of her income from tips (she didn’t say that directly, but we inferred it), but she could only do so much. It turns out that our train from Berlin back to Rostock was stuck behind another train that had a mechanical problem, and who knew when our train would finally get to Berlin?

We finally made it back to the central train station at 6:30 pm or so, naively thinking now we’re gonna get on the train and decompress only to find out the train was still an hour out. We didn’t actually get to board our train until something like 7:30 pm and we weren’t back in Rostock, at the ship, until close to 11 pm. Thank God we’d booked our excursion via the cruise line; they’re contractually committed to holding the ship until all their excursions are back. (Which turned out to be, oh, most of the ship. A couple thousand of us, from the looks of things, got off that train.)

We were all absolutely exhausted. One wouldn’t think that riding around all day on a motorcoach would wear you out, but it’d been a hot sunny day and a long one as well. (The ship kept the buffet-style restaurant up on Deck 14 open well past midnight to take care of all the late-arriving passengers, by the way.)

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So, okay, did we enjoy our time in Berlin? Did we see anything interesting? Yes. For the most part we did.

Dozens of tour groups exited the ship, all wearing little stickers with numbers identifying which tour group you were with. We all took the same train south. One group got off at a concentration camp; the rest of us continued on to Berlin. Our group was #11… the exclusive Best of Berlin tour group. We signed up for the exclusive Best Of… package of shore excursions which cost more, but which came with a guarantee that our group would not exceed 15 people. That sounded good and all: fewer people competing for the guide’s attention, fewer people to wait for at the end of each stop. What we hadn’t counted on was the sheer press of other tourists from our ship and from other companies, meaning that every stop, even the “quick” ones, turned into an elaborate production complete with shoving and cursing in multiple languages. (Yes, we know that we were tourists too. We tried to be nice.)

It was a hot, sunny day, not a cloud in the sky — and that made it a bit more tiring than it would’ve been, but we certainly saw lots of interesting things. The glare of the sun made it hard to take photos; the sun always seemed to be directly behind whatever I pointed my camera at.

We started at the Berlin Wall — a remaining section (see map) of it, that is, on the Mühlenstraße. Zillions of tourists and dozens of buses were all there to see the legendary barrier between the two Berlins. The Berliners have turned a large remaining swath of the wall into a public art exhibition called the East Side Gallery. You could also go around behind the Wall to a large grassy area between the Wall and the river Spree… which took on a bit of a different light when our guide said “Yes, during the Cold War this was all a minefield. To escape, you’d have to go over the Wall” (she pointed east) “then make your way through the minefield with the guards shooting at you” (she pointed where we were standing) “and then cross the Spree” (she pointed at the river). At that point in the border, the Spree was the actual boundary between the Soviet and Allied sectors of Berlin; the death belt between the river and the Wall were all on East German territory.

We moved on from the Wall to Checkpoint Charlie. You’ve never seen such a testament to who won the Cold War and who lost. Checkpoint Charlie was the single “legal” crossing point between the Allied and Soviet sectors after the construction of the Wall. After the Cold War ended and the Wall (mostly) came down, capitalist market forces swarmed in, erecting t-shirt shops and fast food restaurants as far as the eye could see. Actors set up camp at the (reconstructed, 1961-style) checkpoint booth with props and Cold War military costumes and charged tourists for photo ops. Visiting the Checkpoint (and, frankly, a lot of other areas in Berlin) was like visiting Times Square in New York City on a busy summer Friday afternoon. To us, it was an important historical site; to the Berliners, it was a valuable commercial opportunity they weren’t going to idly ignore.

Then we had lunch at a nice little sit-down restaurant called the Hopfingerbräu where we got a hot meal, beer (if we wanted it) and a chance to chat with our fellow passengers. We wound up having lunch most days with the exact same people — American tourists from the West Coast, for the most part — thanks to the whole small-group Exclusive Best Of… thing. It was all arranged in advance by the tour company; the restaurants we went to for lunch each day obviously had a standing contract to provide X number of tables and meals per day for tourists.

Then… what’d we do next? Let’s see: we went to Bebelplatz and saw the monument to the 1933 Berlin book burning. The monument was in the form of a library with empty shelves, set below the plaza and visible through a window set into the cobbles. We saw the Brandenburg Gate (complete with mobs of mindless tourists; we of course paid attention to where we were going and never got in anyone’s way) and some other random impressive-looking buildings that our tour guide went on at length about without our really processing it all. We moved on to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has to be seen to be believed. It’s an intentionally stark multi-acre complex of 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. The memorial has received praise and criticism for its non-traditional attempt at commemorating something so utterly evil that words and traditional forms can hardly do justice. We had heard about tourists by the thousands climbing the slabs to take selfies, but thank heavens, nothing that incredibly tasteless was happening while we were there. We would have liked to spend longer there and view the underground interpretation center, but we were in the “we have to be back on the bus in 20 minutes” mode by that point. We stopped at the Reichstag, the pre-World War II home of the German parliament which was burned by the Nazis in 1933 (as a pretext for suspending the German constitution) and which was severely damaged during the war and left un-used until reunification. Beautiful building, extensively renovated and with a crystal dome designed by famous architect Sir Norman Foster after reunification… but we didn’t get to go in. No time. Had to keep moving.

We drove by the Berlin Victory Column (but didn’t get to stop), spent a few minutes at the Charlottenburg Palace (long enough to use the bathroom and buy a couple of sodas in the palace gift shop), and then headed to the Kurfurstendamm for our “final stop” and “shopping expedition”. Only nothing was open except for a few restaurants and a shop selling Christmas decorations. We were both hot and cranky and tired by this point and would have dearly loved to have been able to just drive back to the ship and take a swim and so on. Too bad about the whole “being three hours from the ship via train” and the “train can’t even get here because there’s another train broken down in its path” thing.

So, yes, we saw a lot of interesting stuff and got a limited sense of what Berlin is like as a city, but obviously, not a very complete one. We’ll have to come back some day and tour around under our own power, not limited by itineraries and tour guides and the lovely folks at the Deutsche Bahn (the German rail system, which, unfortunately, isn’t as efficient as one would hope).

Back at the ship at last after the lengthy delays, we were both very glad that the next day, Monday, was scheduled as a “sea day” where we’d be transiting the waters between Rostock and the Gulf of Finland. Our next stop would be Tuesday, in Tallinn, Estonia.

What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 4 (All Aboard)

Saturday, August 18 was the first day of our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise aboard the “Norwegian Breakaway”, a big-ass cruise ship decorated from end to end in New York-oriented stuff. Most of the year it serves the New York market, but for some reason did a series of back to back summer 2018 cruises out of Copenhagen in the Baltic Sea. Our itinerary called for us to stop off in Berlin (which is well inland, requiring a multi-hour train trip at the start and end of the day), Tallinn (Estonia), St Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden). To get that up to nine days, two days were spent at sea not doing a port call, and we spent two days moored in St Petersburg. All in all, nine days.

That Saturday, we got up, had breakfast, packed up and checked out of the Axel Guldsmeden, and took a taxi up to the cruiseport on the north side of town. Boarding was painless and our bags made it to our room within a couple of hours. We poked around the ship, found (oddly enough) a two-lane bowling alley with skee-ball games nearby, got our reservation in for a couple’s massage on the “sea day” we had scheduled after our day in Berlin, and had dinner in one of the “specialty restaurants” on board (the quasi-French restaurant called “Le Bistro”). I couldn’t tell you what the heck we ate, but we got pictures of it all anyway.

Carole is a skee-ball goddess, incidentally.

Curiously, it seems we took few if any actual pictures of our stateroom on the Breakaway. I guess when you’ve done a few cruises (we have done four) the staterooms all sort of start to look alike. Ours wasn’t that big despite being a “mini-suite” — the “suite” aspect of it was mostly in that we had a fairly large bathroom with a hotel-sized shower (cruise ship showers are usually about the size of a small phone booth). More to the point, our “mini-suite” entitled us to access to the “thermal suite”, a large quasi-private area directly below the ship’s bridge with a hot tub, a saltwater pool with waterfalls and jets, a sauna, a steam room, a “salt bath” room, and so on. It was indoors, with large windows looking directly ahead of the ship in the direction of travel. I have no photos of that, either, because we were strongly discouraged from roaming around the area with cameras and cell phones. (Much like the rules in a fitness club locker room.) On those days where we weren’t being rushed around onshore by one tour guide or another, we enjoyed just hanging out in the thermal suite and watching the Baltic slip by. (You can see beaucoup photos of the place on the Cruise Critic website; evidently they were allowed to take photos for publicity purposes on a day guests weren’t there.)

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What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 3 (Tivoli)

Friday, August 17 was our first full day in Copenhagen and the last day before we embarked on our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise. We kept things simple and didn’t try to do too much; mostly we wandered around the legendary Tivoli Gardens amusement park and dodged a couple of showers. Tivoli Gardens is the second-oldest amusement park in the world, dating back to 1843. (The oldest is also in Denmark, for what it’s worth.)

In a nutshell, Tivoli Gardens is like a large park with ponds and trees and grassy areas and a couple of concert pavilions, with restaurants and carnival-style amusement park rides scattered here and there. It’s located smack dab in the middle of downtown Copenhagen and we got the impression that a lot of locals have season or yearly memberships and drop by in the evenings to see shows or to walk around the paths. It’s not the sort of thing I’d take a bunch of hyperactive kids to; they’d get bored pretty quickly. The high point of the day, for us, was watching a very nice Commedia dell’Arte show at the Pantomime Theater. Commedia dell’Arte is silent (no speaking lines) buffoonery mixed with ballet dancing. It stars Pierrot, a clown dressed in all white, Harlequin, a trickster dancer dressed in bright colors, and a cast of others. We liked it a lot.

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What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 2 (Arrival)

Day 2 of our Baltic Sea vacation was our first day in Denmark. Our red-eye flight from Chicago got us to Copenhagen at 1 pm local time, which actually worked out well. By the time we got our bags (all four made it! yeah!) and caught a train from the airport to Copenhagen’s central rail station downtown, it was 3 o’clock and we could check right in at our hotel a couple of blocks away.

Hotels in Denmark are a bit different from what we’re used to back in the States — they (mostly) don’t have air conditioning and you don’t see as many chain names as you would back home. We wound up in a boutique hotel called the Axel Guldsmeden, two blocks from the train station (this was in fact the main reason I picked it; we didn’t have to worry about taking taxis to and from the hotel) and three blocks from the legendary Tivoli Gardens amusement park.

The hotel was comfortable and far-from-cookie-cutter, with “Bali-esque” decorations and quirky room features like a stone bathtub with handheld shower and no shower curtain. They had a breakfast buffet you could add to your room for a pretty decent fee and that way we had a Danish-style breakfast (albeit without any danish) each morning without having to venture out.

We didn’t do a whole hell of a lot our first day what with having arrived on a red-eye and all. We walked around and looked at things and took pains to stay out of the way of the gazillions of cyclists that were absolutely everywhere in Copenhagen. They didn’t move at the batshit dangerous speeds we’d been told to expect, but you had to watch out nonetheless — stepping out into a street blindly just because you didn’t hear a car coming was not advised.

We walked past the Tycho Brahe planetarium, walked by but not through the Christiansborg palace (Carole had a fun time walking on the decorative tiles in a pool at Bertel Thorvaldsen Plaza), and wound up getting ice cream in a little shop on the waterfront along the Nyhavn canal. It was a beautiful sunny day, but we were pretty zonked. We walked back to the hotel, had a light dinner in the little brasserie attached to the lobby, and passed out.

Everyone spoke English, by the way. Most of them spoke it very, very well. The only people we met who didn’t speak English were tourists from elsewhere in Europe, some of whom only spoke French or German. As far as we knew, anyway.

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What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 1 (Across The Pond)

This past August we took what was probably our most ambitious vacation ever — a nine day cruise around the Baltic Sea, stopping off in quite a few countries along the way. I say “ambitious” because frankly, we ran ourselves ragged in the course of things by trying to do as much as humanly possible and then some, and as a result, didn’t have as good a time as we probably would’ve if we just flew to some random island in the Caribbean and drank mai-tais for a week.

Our plan was to fly to Copenhagen, take a couple of days to adjust our internal clocks, then hop on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship for nine days of port calls around the Baltic Sea… followed at the end by two more days hanging out in Copenhagen to relax before having to fly back.

Day 1 of our trip was Wednesday, August 15. We flew United to Chicago and SAS from Chicago to Copenhagen. It made for a long day of flying, especially with a nine hour layover between flights thanks to United dropping the later flight we were originally on and putting us on an earlier flight that got us to Chicago around noon. So, we actually used some of my Hilton points and got a room at the O’Hare airport hotel and crashed for a few hours, then headed back over to the airport proper for our 10 pm red-eye flight to Denmark. My United Club membership and Star Alliance Gold standing got us into the SAS Lounge in the O’Hare International terminal, which was interesting because a) it was about the size of a phone booth and had no restrooms inside, so you had to go back out of the club to use the facilities, and b) had TONS of liquor and meats and cheeses and things, INCLUDING RAMEN NOODLES. The United Club lounges I use for business trips may be huge, but they don’t have all the goodies European airlines consider de rigeur.

The flight proper took about nine hours and we tried as much as possible to just sleep, hoping to arrive the next day in Copenhagen somewhat refreshed. Bizarrely, SAS planes do not have air vents over each seat and it got very stuffy during the flight. Apparently this is common to European carriers — no air vents. We got free seatback TV and movies (they had pretty wide assortment of movies, available in English, Danish, French, German, and Japanese) not to mention a free “comfort kit” which consisted of a sleep mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, ear buds for use with the TV system, and a “shoe bag”. They served us a hot dinner a couple hours into the flight and another hot meal — not breakfast, exactly, but more of a hot lunch — an hour and a half before landing. We were glad for the food, but all in all we’d have traded it for cool air and fewer disruptions.

People who fly to Europe and elsewhere routinely won’t be surprised to hear us say it, but SAS coach class travel beats the hell out of US domestic coach class travel. All except for that “no air vents” thing.

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Pig On A Park Bench

Remember that line from “Eleanor Rigby” — “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear”?

I’ve been spending my free time the last few days writing up our August 2018 cruise to the Baltic Sea, curating photos, and so on, all with an aim to posting it all to our WordPress blog at some point — and I know absolutely no one’s going to look at it.

I guess it’s mostly for our benefit, so Carole and I can look back in a few years and go “oh, yeah, it was Estonia where we saw that statue of a pig sitting on a park bench”.

Still, it beats zoning out in front of the television, right? Right?

(Okay, I’m a lonely person.)

I Would Walk 500 Miles and I Would Walk 500 More

I’m about to head to the airport (it’s 4:51 am EST as I write this) to fly from chilly Vermont (15 degrees fondly Fahrenheit right this second) to sunny San Diego (today’s high, 77 degrees).

It’s time for the 2018 San Diego Susan G Komen 3-Day!

This will be my 18th 3-Day as a walker (dating back to 2008) and my 29th event overall. (I’ve also served as support crew 11 times). If you total up the miles I’ve walked on event as a walker so far (one event was cut short due to weather, and twice, due to injury/health concerns, I wound up sweeping part of the way) I’m probably at something like 960 miles total. Which means that, barring unexpected circumstances this weekend, I’ll have walked my 1000th 3-Day mile sometime late on Saturday! (This doesn’t count, obviously, all the miles on training walks and such leading up to 3-Day walks.)

With all that walking, cancer must be pretty much cured by now, right?

Okay, well, no. But progress has been made in many areas over the last ten years, and the $50,000+ that I’ve raised through my walking has probably made some slight difference. Total up the millions on millions that all of us walkers have raised and the 3-Day overall has made a big impact. We walkers owe it all to you, our supporters and donors.

Awooooo!

You know the drill: you’re on vacation, you go to a bar or club or something, and the owners stick a performer out there on a guitar with instructions to “keep ’em happy so they’ll keep buyin’.” Usually the musicians in question are fairly forgettable, but once in a while you come across the exception.

Carole and I took a seven-day, six-night cruise around the Hawaiian Islands last week aboard the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ ship “Pride of America”. Along the way, we encountered Marissa Hollenback performing in “Pink’s Champagne Bar” (seriously).

She definitely stood out. Marissa could cover virtually anything in her soulful, rocking style (I thought briefly about asking her to cover “Jesus Built My Hot Rod” by Ministry, but thought better of it) and had clearly rolled a natural 100 on her Audience Banter and Repartee skill. The only thing I saw all week that fazed her was when I looked up her album on Amazon.com (she had stacks for sale right there on the ship as well) and requested one of her songs. She recovered brilliantly, told us the story of how the song came to be, and rocked the place.

I doubt you’re going to rush off and buy her CD solely on the strength of my recommendation, but at least give her a listen on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtPMldmJ6tmciyFAGSbOeBQ

And if you would like to buy some of her music:

https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/marissahollenback

Theo agrees!

50

As of tonight, when we arrived in Honolulu and checked in to a hotel on Waikiki Beach, I have now been to all 50 U.S. states.  I don’t count “changed planes in an airport” visits; I’ve stayed overnight in almost all states and the ones I haven’t, I’ve driven around in, had a meal in, etcetera.

My 49th was Alaska, back in 2007.  Took ten years to cross off number 50, but I made it at last.

The Banality of Hawaii

Carole (aka Squeaky) and I are leaving for vacation in a couple of weeks. We’re heading to Hawaii, for a cruise that starts in Honolulu but spends a couple of days at Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai. The cruise is six nights and seven days, and we’ll be staying on Waikiki Beach for three days both before and after.

This is only our third cruise ever — we’re not really cruisy people. But the idea of carrying our hotel with us and visiting more than one island in this, our first trip to Hawaii, kind of appeals.

The thing that my thoughts keep coming back to, though, is the oddness of visiting a location that to me, will be rather exotic (I’ve been to 49 states, some Caribbean islands, and the UK and France, but never to Hawaii) but to others is a place they’ve often visited or, in some cases, they used to live in.

To me, it’s exotic. To them, it’s like reading about someone’s vacation to Parsippany, NJ. In other words, not that exciting, and what we’ll think of as “super cool and neat” they’ll think of as “they did THAT? When ___ was ten minutes away and much neater?”

I get the impression that I’m among the last of my friends to go to Hawaii, which I’m sure isn’t the case, but given how many people I’ve seen checking in from there, I know I’m not the first.

Does it sound like I think it’s not going to be as much fun to go someplace that everyone else has been?

I guess I might be conveying that impression. But in actuality, I’m not jealous that I’m only now going there when everyone else considers a Hawaii trip old hat; I’m just acutely sheepish about how pedestrian my “Once In A Lifetime” Big Hawaii Vacation is going to seem to some people.

(That’s me, always attempting to look at myself from another person’s point of view and automatically assuming that they’ll deem me hyper-lame.)

Ah, well. If my vacation photos result in massive ho-hums from all and sundry, I can always try to go someplace more interesting next time.

Maybe Tulsa.