Sunday, September 6, 2009

the first 4 days of our trip

Warning – If you are going to Amsterdam and plan to buy train or metro tickets with your credit card, know your pin number. Rick and I never use our pin numbers. (Do we actually have them?) Not having pin numbers added a level of difficulty to our purchase of train tickets but that was nothing compared with the level of difficulty that Delta Air assigned to our flight.

We parked in Rochester at the $15 per week parking lot at the entrance to the airport. There were only a few empty spaces and that’s the most packed we’ve ever seen it. We rolled past the gas station and across the street through the official parking lot and checked our bags to JFK. That was the last easy part of the trip.

In JFK the check in line was huge – a human snake of luggage, squirming children, exhausted adults and very serious faces. It seems that Friday’s 3:40 flight had been cancelled so an entire plane load of we’ve-been-waiting-for -24 hours-people stood demanding attention and transportation to Amsterdam in addition to the already booked plane load of we’re-going-to-Amsterdam-on-Saturday-people.

There were computer check-in kiosks for the regular Saturday flight and another group for the rescheduled people who would leave at 4:40. A person led us to the 3:40 line and Rick entered our information. The machine spit out 2 boarding passes. While we were trying to move into a line to check the luggage a man called my name. He had our luggage tags and while I was being amazed about the speed of his finding us he said, “Look at this mess.”

It was a mess. The floor was covered with people and suitcases. There were lines crossing lines. There were throngs of people; hordes of passengers; seething pools of frustration pulling wheeled suitcases.

The representative continued, “It’s because of these self-serve computer kiosks,” he fumed. “They fired people, added computers and ruined our system. They cut costs and piled on the work. They’ve ruined everything.”

I hardly dared to talk with him. He was so frustrated and exhausted. He put the tags on our suitcases and sent us to join a line for the self serve suitcase security. The passengers in that line were possessive of their bit of floor space and shooed us away. We tried to find the end of the line for the 3:40 flight and when we found someone set to go at 4:40 they let us in. We didn’t have as much time as they did, right?

There were 2 x-ray machines and 2 exhausted people feeding them suitcases. The machine would slowly pull a suitcase inside, examine it and shove it out the back with a vehement kick that rocked the entire machine. With a mix of faith and hope we left our bags there and went to the gate.

We boarded the plane a little behind schedule and then sat there on the tarmac. What was going on? When the captain spoke about a half hour later I expected him to say something cheerful like that the plane would be pulled to the taxi way but, nope. Instead he told us a little story about the cancelled flight on Friday and the rescheduling of flights that was done without a provision for food for an extra plane. That “extra” plane had food but we did not. He hoped the wait would be short but in the meantime the crew would serve what they had and he’d have them start the in-flight film.

The crew had apple juice, orange juice and water. They said that there was no food at all but we learned later that first class folk had wine and nuts.

The half hour grew to 2 hours when the captain announced the wait would be at least 90 minutes longer. The groans and complaints swelled. People were missing connecting flights. Babies declined to be patient. Everyone was getting hungry and stiff and they weren’t even getting anywhere for it.

Likely someone asked if we couldn’t just take the food from the 4:40 flight and we were told not to be jealous. That flight hadn’t taken off either. They were without a full crew to serve “our” food so they were sitting and waiting also. Was that true or a clever bit of spin?

To forestall mutiny, the captain arranged $10 food vouchers for each of us and called the buses back to take us to the terminal to amuse ourselves. On the way out we passed the first class folk eating nuts and drinking wine. Rick and I got to the door in time to find the first bus had filled and gone so we stayed there and talked. One of the crew echoed the frustration of the luggage-tag man. People were cut from the workforce. Workloads were doubled. People were exhausted from working past the breaking point, forgetting things, making mistakes. “It can’t go on like this,” she said.

The bit of JFK that we were able to walk through had a couple of rest rooms; a Hudson; a coffee shop and a Chinese restaurant. The vouchers were good at the coffee shop and restaurant only. The staff there wasn’t prepared for an extra planeload of people all at once.

Rick and I went to the coffee shop and easily spent our $20 on not much food but it was better than sitting on the plane. Still the problems continued. When we got back on the plane the food still had not arrived. It really made sense when we thought of the task of making meals for 150 people while trying to stay on schedule for all the other planes.

The food finally arrived at about 9 pm but by then we were blocked in by another plane so they had to take away the boarding ladder, tow the plane and then tow us out to where we could join the queue waiting to take off and that finally happened at about 10 p.m. – 6 hours later than scheduled. The flight was only 6 hours and 25 minutes so this was like double duty in that seat. I will admit that we arrived with our luggage but we lost half day in Amsterdam.

Instead of getting to Amsterdam at 6 a.m., we arrived after noon expecting to roll right out to the Botel. Once we bought train tickets we easily made it to Central Station and it should have been an easy walk to the Botel but, and who could be prepared for this, they moved it. A regular Hotel is quite attached to the ground and unlikely to change addresses but a Botel can move across a river. Instead of walking we had to take a ferry.

Someone told us to take the ferry on the left but she meant the left most of the 4 blue and white ferrys and not the green ferry that was all the way to the left of the pier. I bought a pair of tickets for the greens (at a computer kiosk with no people and not much English). When I realized that they were the wrong tickets, I tried to sell them to someone else. The first few people wanted round trip but we had one way and then the next bunch of people wanted children’s tickets and we had adults. I finally found a pair of women who wanted them but I couldn’t make change so they dug in their purses for coins and I only lost a bit on the transaction.

So we got on the free – yes, it was free – ferry. Once settled we decided to strike out to see Amsterdam. We looked at buildings and tried to take heed of the warning – Many a vacation has been ruined by a silent bike or tram. Look both ways when crossing streets. Amazing how hard it was to attend to the small bikes in one direction after maneuvering around a large tram from another.
We decided to get some snacks for dinner and head back to the Botel for an early sleep. We were about to pay at the checkout when the store went dark with a snap. It was very sad to leave the goodies on the counter and be shooed out of the store but we all need to deal with life’s small disasters and I suppose that they often do accost us one after another.

Day 2
I think that this day is mostly photographs to go on Flickr. We had a great meal on the roof of the public Library and went to 2 museums. When we come back in 2 weeks we’ll take a canal cruise and rent bikes. That is, if I can get Steuben Trust to allow my bank card to work.

Day 3 – at Sea on the Celebrity Century
Our cabin is very nice. The wood furniture is rich and we have so much storage that there are 4 empty drawers and 2 empty shelves. They are small drawers and shelves but still all our things have a place and there is room to spare and it looks nice. The cabin feels large though it’s a mystery where people put their large suitcases. Our small bags fit in the closets.

Cabin aside, the ship is a disappointment. There is no promenade deck. One holds that name but there is no place where one can walk laps. There’s a jogging track up on deck 14 but the wind is tremendous and we don’t want to jog. If we did it would require 14 laps per mile. There are treadmills but the walking gait isn’t the same and so they don’t do the trick for us.

The library here is about 1/10 the size of the library on the Volendam which is a smaller ship – 500 fewer passengers. The Volendam had nearly as many travel reference books as this library has fiction and this library is only fiction. There are no daily papers and no magazines that we have found here.

There is no self service laundry. The Volendam had them on all cabin floors and it was great to do a quick ironing touch-up or a load of underwear and socks. We talked with others who said that this is the first cruise they’ve had without self service laundry. Since we, or more accurately since I am basically cheap and fussy of my laundry soap this is a problem the solution to which is rinsing out clothing at night and hanging them in the shower or over the back of a chair.

The Volendam (our ship for 3 other cruises) crew took us on behind the scenes tours into the kitchens and behind stage and such but here that only happens for a fee. There’s a self guided art tour onboard but I tried diligently to find the works and failed. Niches are empty and works are inside of restaurants that are only open now and then and nobody knew (including an officer and the main desk) that there should be an original Picasso somewhere.

Our waiter is attentive and helpful but I am unable to convey to him that I would like a dessert without milk. He offers gluten free and sugar free but the concept of milk-free dessert does not exist in his world.

Day 4 – Germany

We might have gone to Berlin while the ship was docked in Warnemunde but the tour was $300+ per person for the day and involved 6 hours in a train so we took a self guided tour of Rostock and intended to make it back in time to see Warnemunde too.

In the cruise ship terminal we purchased Rostok value cards for 7 Euros. These gave us the use of all local trains and trams for the day and entry or discounted entry into several places in both towns as well as details for the train and tram and maps of both areas. The train was a double decker that ran every 15 minutes all the time and the line was thoroughly decorated with graffiti festooned pipes and overpasses.

I took a photo of a huge apartment with sunflower motif mosaic tiles on the entire wall. Another apartment complex was decorated in the same way with a starburst. It’s nice to see such large scale art where a plain cinderblock wall would do the functional job. There isn’t enough public art in the world.
Rostok was easily walkable. Well, the distances were easy to walk. The cobblestones, no so much. Ankle twisters they are and while concentrating on one’s footfall it is also necessary to watch for the silent bikes and trams as it was in Amsterdam.

The town square was huge and held an open market for fruit, vegetables, meats and cheese and also for cooked food including fried potatoes, wienersnitzel, sausage and drinks. The sausage looks like overlong hot dogs and are offered in up to half meter lengths with or without curry sauce.

The buildings looked a lot like those in Amsterdam with those great shapes on the roof tops. The town hall was built in 1270 and then 2 neighboring houses were attached to it. The jail was in the bottom floors and the remaining building areas held offices, a market and wine cellars. The renovation was lovely and it’s possible to look through heavy glass panels on the floor to see the huge wooden beam that form the skeleton of the original building.

A traditional building material is brick. Sometimes the brick is glazed black or white or cream. The most common is black and it is used with red in alternating rows. There is also a traditional pattern called the German string which puts the brick at an angle so that a corner points outward and the negative space between is a v-shape. The lighthouse in Warenemunde is made of cream and white glazed brick and several old buildings in Rostock are of the red and black brick. When the East German communist party took over the old styles and indeed old buildings were not honored. They particularly blew up churches. They (the city planners) did not just take buildings down. They blew them up and, as I said, particularly churches. It seems a pity to blow up a thousand year old church or anything.

St. Mary’s church was not torn down. It continues to stand and house an astronomic al clock built in 1200 and still running. Every couple hundred years they have to repaint the part of the dial concerning the year. At this point that dial holds 1885 to 2017. It chimes on the hour and once a day an apostle marches out and bows to Jesus. While I saw nothing move I did record a lovely set of bells and one can hear the gears churning away in the background. Happily the organ rehearsal stopped to allow the chime of the bells.

We also found St. Peter’s church, long the tallest tower in the town so the beacon for fishermen to return to port. We took an elevator to the top of the tower. The elevator was oddly placed just inside the front door so that was smack in the line of vision when entering the church door but when we climbed down the steps we were really happy it was there to take us up. In the tower a massive web of timber climbs to the top of the spire above while 12 windows offer a view of the town from every direction. On the way down we found a bit of a crack in the tower wall – the kind that allows daylight to peep in. It didn’t seem an ideal situation for a church, or any brick, wall.

Climbing down was easy at first with normal stairs but at the end we had to go down the 800 year old, small spiral steps, gripping tightly to a thick, dirty, white rope.

When we returned to Warenmunde the E-café was closed as was the lighthouse. The mini train was parked for the night and we were tired from walking on cobblestones so we missed most of the town.

The seagulls escorted the ship into the harbor here, swirling and crying for bits of food thrown by passengers (forbidden by the captain), blown from dishes on the veranda or churned up by the ship as it passed in the water. There are white gulls whose wings cross at the end and wear an orange spot on the center, lower beak as well as brown gull with unadorned beaks that hide their wing tips when they walk. All of them turn their heads and fix their eyes on this and that with jerked movements and call out demands, “Mine. Mine.”

The many islands along the shipping lane have trees, small cottages, large houses and rocky cheeks. In the water the smaller cruise ships from the Viking Line bring passengers back and forth from Finland to Sweden on overnight shopping/drinking jaunts. Rick’ s guide book claims that the ships stop briefly at some non-European Union Islands so that the trip becomes international and thereby the shopping tax free and this makes the jaunt very popular.

I might add here that the Dutch spell island without the “s” in a very reasonable and enviable manner.
Our ship docked flawlessly. It is amazing to experience such delicate control over a huge, or as our neighbor Gail has aid, ginormous vessel. The nose goes dock ward first and a rope is tossed to the dock with the aid of a small ball tied to it. Then the dock men strain to pull the light rope in order to pull the heavy rope out of the water and loop it onto the rope goes over it thing. As they pull the rope forward, the rear of the ship moves in line all so slowly and gently that there is no perception of movement on the ship.

We chose to go on our own so left the ship for the public ferry which took us directly to the Vasa museum. We passed some cranes painted to look like giraffes. I love that stuff. Did the company pay workers to do that? Did some artist ask to be allowed? Is the giraffe’s head ever in the way? Was it done for tourists, for fun or as a lost bet? Whatever the start, the tradition continues. The cranes are giraffes.
The Vasa museum building is irregularly shaped with ship’s masts through the roof. It was once a dry dock but the Vasa was towed into it; the water drained and a museum built around it.

Here’s the story of the Vasa. In 1628 Sweden was at war with Poland and the king chose to have a special war ship built with two rows of cannons for power and hundreds of carvings for beauty. The ship was well under construction when the king demanded more canons. More canons were brought but the ship builders were concerned. They had tested the ship in the usual way. 30 seamen stood on one side and ran together to the other side and turned and ran back to check the stability. Generally the exercise involved running back and forth 10 times. If the ship didn’t capsize, it was stable.

The seamen on the Vasa were stopped after 3 runs because the ship began to tilt too much. The ballast added to counteract for the extra canons was insufficient but the king was waiting for the ship to pick him up – a colorful and powerful chariot of glory on the sea.

The sailors were allowed to bring their families onboard for the short trip in Stockholm to pick up provisions. It was a glorious, clear day. They opened all the cannon doors and began to sail. The wind picked up and tilted the ship. The insufficient ballast consisted of round rocks that rolled to one side causing more of a problem and then the open cannon doors allowed cold Baltic waters to enter. In 20 minutes the ship was sunk along with 30 or so people, two of them a man and woman in embrace.

The water was only 30 meters deep but the ship fell on its side so was totally under water for 333 years. In 1640 (or so – not quite sure) an effort was made to raise the ship but all that was accomplished was to stand it upright and to reclaim the canons and the masts. The technology for raising a ship was not at hand.

The ship was joined with wooden pegs and iron nails. Where the parts were held with wooden peg, it pretty much stayed together. The iron nails rusted and the smaller parts fell to the ocean mud where they were preserved. The ship was found in the late 1950 and what was pulled to the surface were over 14,000 parts of the ultimate jigsaw puzzle.

The ship is preserved and reassembled, a process that took several years. Iron picks were used to line up old nail holes and put parts back together. Some parts were reproduced and fitted in but these are easy to see. The old are rough and the new are smooth. 95% is original. The carvings include Roman warriors, lions, coats of arms, and mythical creatures such as mermaids and tritons.

There is a reconstructed below decks area with roughly formed, full-sized statues of men and reproduced cannons so that visitors can walk through and get a sense of the space. A model stands in full sail and in full color to help understand what a masterpiece the Vasa was. A film explains a lot of the project and English tours are given regularly by lovely Swedish guides.

Our next stop was the Nordiska Museet just behind the Vasa. It was a gorgeous building with samples of folk art and table settings, clothing and furniture, photographs and toys. I learned several things such as in the 1500s when guests came to dinner they brought their own cutlery. The main focus for art and entertainment is the wedding or the funeral. Both bring large numbers of people together to see or use things and to eat. The Sami are the main indigenous people in Norway and they care for reindeer herds. The Chernobyl disaster disrupted their lively hoods for a long while. People wouldn’t buy reindeer meat for fear of contamination. Even now, the reindeer are fed food brought to them rather than being allowed to graze where Chernobyl’s fall out has contaminated.

This is a Sami poem about floods.
Violated Village – In agony the village breathes – flees in terror from new waters – the water rises high toward the settlements – With toil the dwellings are moved – smooth slopes, green pastures – they must leave with a heavy heart.

Punch (water, sugar, tea, lemon and arrack) was originally for men only and was served hot or cold with cigars at card games. Tea was for ladies but servants could take used tea leaves to brew their own teas.
At the turn of the century it was acceptable to invite people for coffee rather than for a full dinner. Coffee meant at least 7 kind of cake or cookies and the guest had to taste them all.

In the garden in front of the Nordic Museum a bronze Jenny Lind sits in a ruffled skirt. The lovely gardens are segregated by color with the purple being my favorite.

We finished our short time with a full circle around the harbor taking photos of gorgeous buildings, including the palace. The cruise schedule allows for only short visits in each city and the time goes quickly.

I did learn that the expensive – to me they seem expensive at $70 to $300 per person for a tour – tours offered by the ship include an hour or more shopping in selected stores. It seems a waste of time to shop where there are only 6 hours or so to see a major city. So many lovely places to see and so little time because it’s a big deal to miss the ship.

We started with the Sunday morning Flea Market, Rumble Sale, Boot Sale in a square midway between the cruise ship dock and mid city. It was a small area with people set up with tables but also with a great number of clothing racks. I would say that nearly every [person was selling clothing and not a few things had sequins or some sort of glitter. There were shoes and ties and the very best Scrooge McDuck statue I ever saw. It would have been great to toss in the back of the car and drag home for a joke for Rick and maybe for a garden piece later but the operative word here is drag and there is only so much dragging home can be done. The Mickey and Mini Mouse clocks were a hoot.

Rick liked an antique knife and also a set of weights (the largest was a KG itself) and also an old set of ice skates but all he bought was a donut. It’s easy to like things and smile at them but the carrying home sets the bar pretty high for actual purchases.

There were a great number of books for adults and children and sparkly sneakers and scarves and plates and goblets and sorts of things one could never get home in one piece. The prices were really low and the shoppers numerous and enthusiastic.

Our first stop was the Church of the Rock which was blasted out of a huge rock in the 60s. Entry to the church was free but the use of the rest room was 1 Euro. (Rick and I paid $3 between us to pee. He said it cost more to pee than to drink.) There was a sweet organ there and pulpit had a green cloth draped over it that ended with plants growing at the base. The dome is copper outside and 15 miles of copper ribbon inside. There’s a full balcony for the church and outside it’s okay to climb the rocks though not to climb on the actual dome.

The Lutheran Cathedral was topped with the most brilliant onion domes. We couldn’t figure how they got them so shinny. Inside it was open floor or folding chairs but ornate altars and things on the walls.

The Russian Church was filled with pews with closed sides. It was necessary to open the gate to walk into the pew. The organ was massive and ornate. The whole thing was pretty ornate or I thought so till we found another church where there couldn’t have been one more bit of folderol squeezed in with a shoe horn. In this church there had just been a concert and the microphones and sound equipment were being put up and CDs were still for sale.

That’s about all we had time for in Helsinki though we took photos of lovely buildings – lots of them art novo. We did again manage not to be smashed by a silent tram and hardly saw any bikes at all.

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