Adventures on the Baltic Sea

By | September 24, 2018

Warning: the following blog entry will contain details and photos of someone else’s vacation, which in all honesty is like saying “we’re going to bore you stupid and make you envious at the same time.”

I don’t know for a fact that sharing photos of us spending a lot of money touring some far-off land will make you envious. It probably depends on whether you ever wanted to go to the place in question. I’m still envious as hell of my co-worker Danielle who has taken vacations to the north coast of Alaska and to Antarctica.

Anyway, I’ve always felt weird sharing vacation photos. Most people put them on the same level as “photos of grandchildren” and a little bit below “photos of a not especially cute family pet.” In other words, ehh.

It’s one thing if you did something especially wacky for a vacation, like going to an elephant reserve in Thailand (hi, Helen!) or you visited the largest ball of twine in the world. It’s another thing entirely if your vacation was just a series of photos of “And here we are at the Louvre with the Johnsons, we met them in Brussels and they tagged along with us the next two stops on the tour, Sally there is an accountant, Bob makes homemade soap.”

By the way, did you know that there are multiple competitors for the title of “largest ball of twine“? The one in Iowa is the all-time biggest, but there’s one in Minnesota that’s the largest one wound by a single person, there’s one in Wisconsin that’s the heaviest, and there’s even one in Texas laying claim to the title of Largest Ball of Nylon Twine. If you ever go on vacation and visit all four in one trip, definitely invite me over to look at photos. Bonus points if they’re on slides and we have to sit in a dark room to see ’em.

If you watched Mad Men, you know what slides are (See Episode 1:13, “The Wheel“). But you might not remember the days when it was considered an absolute necessity a few times a year to drag out the carousel slide projector, spend an hour putting slides in the carousels in a hypothetically pleasing order, and then make your kids, neighbors, and any damn other person you could shanghai in off the street sit in a darkened room with you while you clicked your way through ’em. These were slides:

Little transparent photos in little plastic frames. When you took your film in to the Fotomat to be developed you could ask for prints or slides. You fitted the slides into a round “carousel” tray that rotated through a projector and countless fun family evenings resulted.

Your kids could run a Bingo card full of squares like “slide in backwards”, “slide in upside down”, “slide of completely unrelated thing mixed in”, “out of focus slide”, “slide of a really cool thing that just happened to have a stranger picking his nose in the foreground” … it was non-stop excitement. You’d sit there in your family room in pitch darkness while Dad clicked his way through going “oh, um, hm, I think that’s the Grand Canyon” with your mom replying “No, no, that’s the Petrified Forest, remember, that’s where Billy threw up.”

I don’t know of anyone who actually liked sitting in the dark looking at slides, but dads everywhere had closets full of ’em. My father passed away in 2017 and I have absolutely no idea what became of all his slides. He had a closetful, some already in trays, some in boxes, some in big manila envelopes waiting forever to be sorted. Poor guy.

So anyway: I freely grant that the average person probably won’t care much about what Carole and I did the last two weeks of August when we flew to Denmark and took a Baltic Sea cruise. We had a good time, although it seemed that most days saw us absolutely frazzled and wiped out by nightfall. I was definitely in the “I need a vacation from the vacation” mode by the end. (Also, I’d come down with a bad cold two days before the end of the cruise and had very little interest in stirring out of bed, let alone doing anything exciting that I’d subsequently be able to tell you about.)

Long story short: we flew from Vermont to Chicago to Copenhagen via Scandinavian Airlines, arriving at 1 in the afternoon after an all-night flight. We checked into a hotel a block from the big downtown train station in Copenhagen. We poked around for a couple of days and saw things. Then we got on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship, the Norwegian Breakaway, and spent nine days visiting Baltic Sea ports and their associated cities:

  • Berlin, Germany — which isn’t on the Baltic Sea at all, which meant that we had a close-to-three-hour train trip to get to Berlin in the morning and another one back to the port in the evening. In theory, anyway…
  • Tallinn, Estonia — nice little small city on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Former Soviet republic (but never happy about that fact), now asserting itself again as an independent country but always looking nervously east at Russia.
  • St. Petersburg, Russia — we spent two days docked there, but couldn’t roam around freely onshore. We had to be with a licensed tour guide at all times. That said, it was a lot less “Soviet Totalitarian” in style than the old days — there was a whole street of nothing but expensive auto dealerships. There were McDonaldses. There was lovely Russian Empire-era architecture too. But before you get the impression that it was all a mishmash of New York City with the odd Disney palace mixed in … there was also no shortage of God-awful Soviet-era architecture, mostly in the form of giant soulless apartment blocks, all built out of crumbly concrete and possessed of the charm of your average broom closet. That said, the people were friendly. Good dancers.
  • Helsinki, Finland — nice little small city on the north shore of the Gulf of Finland. Not much to see or do there besides buying textiles (according to our tour guide), so we went an hour outside the city to a little town called Porvoo where we got to pay money to use the bathroom and eat reindeer salami.
  • Stockholm, Sweden — big city on the west coast of the Baltic. The “Venice of the North” due to all the waterways in and among the islands making up the city. We got there during a major left-wing demonstration. Or maybe it was a right-wing demonstration. Streets were closed off and cops were everywhere. It was all very confusing. But we got to see some more nice architecture, to say nothing of a big-ass ship from the Swedish Empire days of the early 1700s which had sunk on its maiden voyage, never actually having gotten out of the harbor.
  • Aaaaand back to Copenhagen, where I had a bad cold, wanted to die at various times, and where it rained cats and dogs on us. But we got to see the Little Mermaid statue, which was every bit as small and unprepossessing as you’d have expected, and we also visited one of the Lego stores.

Then we flew home, Scandinavian Airlines through DC and back to Vermont.

Did we have fun? You bet. But as I said, we were tired all the time from having to get up early each day to meet a tour operator who would shuttle us all around whatever city we were in that day, fighting through crowds of other tourists from other countries having arrived on other cruise ships. It was, at times, kind of like going to the mall on Black Friday. Only with 1/3 of the shoppers speaking Japanese or Chinese and everyone desperately trying not to lose sight of their guide while taking photos of the backs of other tourists’ heads.

What was our favorite moment?

Probably the time we went to the Ice Bar on the Breakaway. It was a small bar made out of, you guessed it, ice. Built in a sizable (for a freezer, anyway) freezer. With ice furniture. And glasses made out of ice. We had to wear warm insulated capes and gloves because inside, it was 15 degrees. We took in our stuffed animal penguin, Adelie, who liked it a lot. She hadn’t known that cruise ships were adding penguin-friendly areas.

And then, there was the Commedia del’Arte show at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, featuring the ancient characters of Harlequino (the clown in motley, who in this version, was a very fine-lookin’ ballet dancer) and Pierrot, the clown in white (a.k.a. the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man). Tivoli itself is a fascinating place — the oldest amusement park in the world, with some rides (mostly on the state fair level, to be honest), lots of restaurants, and lots of nice green gardens to stroll through. But they also do a nightly Commedia show, with really high caliber performers, and we left going “wow, that was really something.”


In the end, though, we had lots of fun times and visited lots of places we’d like to go back to, if it weren’t for the whole “flying across the Atlantic in a crowded airliner and landing in a jet-lagged stupor” thing.

As we get around to it, we’ll be sharing photos and memories of our trip. Feel free to ignore us, or better yet, just go sit in a darkened room with a flashlight pointed at a bare spot of wall. It’ll work out the same either way.


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