When I woke up that morning, I was looking forward to our somewhat cryptic tour that day: “Sibelius Monument, Porvoo, and Temppelliaukio” were the words gracing our tour tickets. We may as well have picked blindly out of a hat for what we understood of those slightly enigmatic words, but as it turns out, we picked very, very well.

We went through the morning motions without a hitch, though we were slowly but surely becoming sadder by the moment as we realized how close we were to being done with vacation.  We didn’t waste much time on that emotion, however, especially once we got caught up living in the moments of the day.  We hopped on a bus and drove through a very empty Helsinki.  Our tour guide explained to us that most things were closed on Sunday mornings (and it was very early, perhaps 6:30AM) and that it was also a national holiday-Finland Day or some such thing, and that the streets would get very crowded with bicycles later on (very few cars exist on the road anyway because gas prices top out at over ten dollars a gallon!).

We didn’t have to drive far before we ended up at the Sibelius Monument.  Jean Sibelius was a famous Finnish composer.  When Finland was dominated by the Russians, it was illegal to play Sibelius’ most famous piece, “Finlandia,” because the Russians feared it would stir patriotism in the masses and cause an uprising.  Ultimately, the Finns fought the Russians valiantly and won their independence in 1917, making Finland 5 years younger than my home state of Arizona.

What an incredible, imposing structure the Sibelius Monument is.  Hundreds of steel pipes in varying thicknesses and heights are affixed together and made to stand alone in a clearing with no obstructions, and when the wind blows, the pipes make music of their own, all of it gorgeous and haunting.  “God’s Pipe Organ” would be an entirely accurate sobriquet, should one choose to use it.

Next to the Monument is a steel replica of a very sour-looking Jean Sibelius.  Our tour guide said they had a name for him in Finland: “Arriburri,” which means to have the “morning grouchies.”  We lingered there for a few minutes, watching the ducks and taking in all the gorgeous scenery before hopping on the bus once again.

This time, we drove for around 40 minutes, my mother and I having no idea of what was coming next.  We ended up outside a little town called Porvoo, east of Helsinki.  We parked next to a bridge covering a small, tranquil body of water. A number of small buildings littered the grounds on the opposite side of the bridge, their matte black roofs giving off dull gleams in the Sun.

Quaint doesn’t describe it. Charming doesn’t do it either.  Whenever I go abroad, I’m likely to take thousands of pictures.  But, if a picture is worth a thousand words, no camera would ever be able to capture what a delicate, wonderful place Porvoo is.  We strolled across the bridge and came into the cobblestone-encrusted town square.  We were pointed in the direction of the water closets and shopping district where many of the diminutive shops were opening their doors for the awestruck tourists that had just arrived. Or, maybe it was just me that was awestruck (but if it was, I’d be quite surprised).

We went through the shops, marveling at the creativity of such people who could fill entire shops with only things that they had made themselves.  The shopkeepers and pedestrians were so kind and generous that I wanted to hug them all like beloved family members.  Many homeowners left the gates to their gardens open deliberately so that anyone could simply stop in and enjoy the loveliness of a private garden. My mom and I had run into our tour guide outside of one of the gardens and we three stopped inside to enjoy the many flowers, potted plants, trees, and picnic tables of blue, red, and green.  We left after a spell to duck into several shops (some more than once), and also went to a very famous confection shop called Brunberg Oy, world-famous for their black salt liquorices.  I bought a bag, plus some toffee, and mom bought some as well (which she eventually gave to me, because she hated the stuff.  I don’t understand it—how can you hate ambrosia of the gods?).  We ran into Brian and Thelma outside of a little café where we had drinks and talked in hushed tones of how much we simply adored the place, as though the city-dwellers might hear and be embarrassed over our gushing.  And it was gushing, indeed.

My mom and I were the last people to get on the bus to leave the town.  Our tour guide walked with us.  I feel terrible for not remembering her name, because she was a vivacious, fun woman, and we walked arm-in-arm back to the bus, laughing the whole way from sheer delight at what a wonderful, surprising day we were having.  It was one of those incredibly rare cross-cultural experiences in which you realize that people aren’t so different after all and can bond over just about anything, even without knowing each others’ names.

It had gotten quite warm outside and we welcomed the coolness of the bus as we took our seats.  Another 10-15 minute drive, and we had arrived at our next destination: an old farmhouse out in the middle of a green meadow, surrounded by fields of rapeseed for several kilometers.  We had no idea why we were there.

This was shaping up to be quite an interesting day.

When we got off the bus we were directed inside a room filled with all manner of farming tools that could easily have doubled as weaponry: massive blades of all shapes and sizes, machetes, porcupine-looking lawn aerators, etc. It felt like the scene from “Twister” when Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt were in a tool shed during a tornado, and nearly ended up being shredded to bits.  I’ll admit, it was a bit of a dodgy atmosphere at first, but that was not our final stop.

We were directed further down a small staircase to an underground cavern that had been decorated with picnic tables, candelabras, fancy pitchers of water, wine glasses, and very classy table settings.  We were being served lunch down here!  And since it was warm outside, being surrounded on all sides by dirt underground gave a very pleasant, if humid, cooling sensation.  I grabbed a seat in a very dark corner and my mom sat across from me.  We were soon joined by two very charming people who were also from North America, and we chatted happily for quite a while.

Early on, I happened to look over to my left to examine my shadowy surroundings, and found a gigantic spider in the corner just above and behind my head.  I do admit, I have arachnophobia, but it has been slowly improving over the past couple of years, so I didn’t have a fit or anything.  Unfortunately though, I had trouble taking my eyes off it for more than a few seconds at a time. You never know about these things, you see.  One second a spider could be sitting happily on its web, and as soon as you look away, it could pull a kamikaze move and sink its fangs into your juicy flesh, thereby infecting you with whatever diseases it’s carrying, leading to your impending death.

But then again, I do have a tendency towards hyperbole.

At any rate, it wasn’t long before numerous wait staff came over with heaping bowls of salad, rolled beef medallions, and delicious desserts.  We ate like kings and thoroughly enjoyed our surroundings, people included.  When we had finished, we walked outside and were pointed to a little gift shop outside the farmhouse.  We strolled around inside and ran into Brian and Thelma once again and happily chatted them up for a while.  The more we saw each other and spoke, the more Brian and Thelma opened up and let loose.  It was the same for me, and I’m sure for my mother as well, but it’s always a very cool thing to see people become comfortable with each other.

Our tour guide met up with us and we all got on the bus once again.  We drove back to Helsinki, along the coast, where thousands of boats were docked in the marina, their owners in various states of disrobement, basking in the heat of the day.  We ended up in Senate Square, where we were let out for a while to look around.  We toured around the shop at the Lutheran St. Nicholas Cathedral (we wanted to go inside the cathedral but were preempted by a baptism), and wandered around behind the cathedral.  We were greeted by a young Finnish girl who told us that there was an art show going on at a place called Kafe Krypta, not 10 meters in front of us, and we decided to go inside, as Mom had to use the loo anyway.

Kafe Krypta was exceedingly cool.  It was exactly as it sounds: a crypt that had been converted into a café.  A small altar adorned the back of the crypt.  Brilliant, masterful artwork covered the walls.  A piano stood regally near a small seating area in the café.  The entire atmosphere was hypnotic, enchanting, even chic.  We poked around for a couple of minutes before deciding to check out Market Square, a very colorful place filled with one-of-a-kind merchandise, much of it very unique and fashionable, as Helsinki is surprisingly one of the top design capitals in the world.  We wound through a labyrinth of interconnected shops, and I selected a pair of fun, unique earrings.  As I went to pay for them, Brian and Thelma came up behind me.  Brian asked if I was buying something for him and I laughed.  “I didn’t realize you had pierced ears,” I told him.

We parted ways again and raced back to the bus, nearly getting pancaked by a trolley bus on the way, as we had run out of time again in our wanderings.  We got back on and I thought for sure that must be the end of the tour, but we had one more stop to make.

The Temppeliaukio Rock Church (another Lutheran church, as Lutheranism is the state religion of Finland) is one of the most famous landmarks in Finland.  It was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and completed in 1969, and what is so spectacular about this church is the fact that it is underground, carved into bedrock.  Wooden slats surround the roof (which is made entirely of copper) and hold it up.  The entire front of the church is covered in pipes from the massive organ they have there.  From the outside, it doesn’t look like much.  The inside, though…that is truly something to see.

We got on the bus for the last time and headed back to the ship.  We were apparently the last tour bus to arrive back, because we set sail almost immediately after we arrived back onboard.  I deposited my many treasures in the stateroom before deciding firmly to attend the Interdenominational church service onboard that day (as it was a Sunday), conducted by Cruise Director Lee.

We walked down to the conference room on Deck 6 forward, and took seats as one of the onboard performers played the piano for us before the service began.  Then Lee came in and discussed Hebrews 11 with us, frequently citing the Old Testament for a bit more context.  I attend seminary, so I suppose I have a bit of a critical eye for preaching and was curious to how he would approach it, and I was seriously impressed, especially when he started expounding on the meanings of words in the original Greek.

I had to talk to this guy.

We sang a few hymns and were let loose.  I went over to Lee to ask where he went to seminary, and as it turns out, he was an autodidact, which was incredible to me.  My mom told him I went to seminary, and some of the other people standing around wanted to know where I went, and so all of us had a very nice conversation about the Bible, seminaries, and sound hermeneutics.  It was great (though I was sad to be the youngest person in the room by about 20 years at least), and I’m very glad I had some spiritual stimulation while I was onboard.

By the time we had finished, we had missed afternoon trivia, and there wasn’t much listed in the Princess Patter that we really wanted to do, so where did we go after church?  The casino, of course.  Sure, it was a bit incongruous, but I didn’t spend a dime.  I watched Mom lose for a while and then I left (at which point she starting winning…sigh).  I wandered around on the deck and through the ship for a while, and went to collect my mom at the casino before heading down to dinner.

By this point in the trip we had finally figured out how to get to the Botticelli dining room without incident. Perfect timing, of course, as the cruise was almost over.  We ate with Brian and Thelma and marveled once again at how much we loved the tour that day.

As you can probably tell, I had gone goofy over Finland, falling hopelessly and irrevocably in love with the place.  I was considering, for the umpteenth time, of defecting.  After all, what else did I need?  Gorgeous weather in summer, freezing winters, beautiful beaches, an adventurous element, quaint towns, amazing people, a ridiculously hard language to learn (which is lots of fun for me), no need for a car, awesome education…I had already come to adore the scent of clean, crisp air, the slightly fishy quality of it near the seas promising untold delights, reminding me that yes! You were in Finland, really and truly!   I couldn’t even be depressed that it was over, because of the high I was still living on.

Everyone agreed that it was a remarkable place, and we adjourned after eating, Mom to go take a short nap before coming to see me at karaoke that night, Brian and Thelma and I to go to Famous Faces trivia.  We met up with Al and Linda there and did well, though we still lost.  Afterward, Brian and Thelma and I decided to go see a show onboard.

The show was a young lady, about my age, who had a lovely singing voice.  Her name was Katrina Rose, and she did well.  Brian, Thelma, and I had a hard time concentrating though, probably because we had just eaten an obscenely large amount of food at dinner, and we ended up leaving early.  I don’t know where they ended up, but I ended up going to listen to DJ Clinton play songs from the Rat Pack back at Club Fusion.  I had a drink there, de rigueur, and jammed out to Frank Sinatra for a while (especially when “Fly Me To The Moon” came on, my favorite song from Ol’ Blue Eyes).  Brian and Thelma joined me not too much later for the Liar’s Club Gameshow.  The Cruise Director’s staff all told the audience something different, and we had to decide which person was telling the truth.  It was quite entertaining, because the natural response was to suspect all of them of lying.

But, in truth, I was a bit preoccupied with psyching myself out for karaoke, which was coming up next.  I hadn’t picked a song yet and was anxiously waiting for Mark to show up with the books so I could choose something, as he was not part of the Liar’s Club.  He showed up about half an hour before karaoke was set to start, and I went over and picked out a song: “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones.

The Liar’s Club soon finished and we were left to wait for karaoke.  I sat with Brian, Thelma, Al, Linda, and my mom, who had joined us.  Mark bounded  up to the front when the lights dimmed and the entry music commenced.  He introduced three singers before calling me up.

Mark is quite a character: flamboyant, flirtatious, kind, mature in private but young-at-heart and Puckish in a group, and always charming.  Mark is British, 26 years old, a Scorpio he says, born in 1984, very open obviously, and exceedingly extroverted.  He was a capo, possibly a consigliere in the ship’s subculture—everyone knew him and plenty would come to give him a hearty handshake and a hello.  Everybody who was anybody knew the guy, and of all the people I met, I probably miss him the most simply because of what an awesome person he is.

He gave me a big hug and before he said anything else, he tenderly stroked my arm and said very shyly, “I missed you.”  I was thoroughly amused, and laughed and said “I missed you too,” before he turned around to look at the audience.  He asked me if I was dedicating the song to someone, and I said there was no one in particular, and then he left me to it.  The song I chose is so languid in its movement that I’m a bit surprised I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of it.  I was very relaxed, which is uncharacteristic of me when I’m singing, and I think it went all right.

Cheers at the end.  A huge hug from Mark as I left the stage.  I went and sat with my friends and my Mom, and they said how well I did.  Linda was in tears.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand such things.

A few other singers came up, and then it was voting time.  Each table got to vote for who they thought the best singer was, and the top two would head to the final round.  I refrained from voting and sat there, sort of hoping I would lose so I wouldn’t have to psych myself out singing again.  While the vote was counted Mark sang for us, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison.  He had a wonderful singing voice, and I was very impressed.

Once the votes had been counted, Mark looked at the tally and seemed a little less happy than usual.  He called one of the names: Joel, from Las Vegas, who had sung “Mandy” by Barry Manilow.  Joel was an incredible singer.  He sounded exactly like Josh Groban and was clearly a professional (indeed, he was, since we saw him singing several times at other places around the ship). He was probably around my age. The second winner was an older lady from Canada named Grace who had sung “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis Presley.

I was amused looking at the reactions on the faces of the people around me.  They seemed flabbergasted.  I got told time and time again afterward that I had been robbed, that the lady from Canada had had a huge group of friends with her who had separated tables to get the most votes, that it should’ve been me up there with Joel.  I didn’t care (I really didn’t!); I thought I was off the hook!  I had wanted to sing once on a ship in the middle of the sea, and I’d already done it twice.  I was set, and had zero  interest in “winning.”

My mom and I walked out amidst many people telling me I was robbed and wishing to commiserate.  I steered us quickly in the direction of the Explorer’s Lounge to get away from all of that, and walked through Explorer’s a little bit before getting caught by a couple who had heard me say the day before that I was a churchgoer.  We stood outside the lounge and talked about God and school for several minutes.  They said that I should come back the following night to try again at the karaoke competition, and many others had echoed those same sentiments.  I vacillated several times on whether or not I should, and then Mark and one of the other assistant cruise directors caught up to me.  Mark said quite frankly that I should come back the following night, and maybe sing a number like “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion (I wondered if it would be a little strange and perhaps morbid to be singing the Titanic theme song on a cruise ship), and he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  He and the other assistant cruise director said I did great and that they were certain the outcome would be different if I came back.  Mark was pleased when I finally said I’d come back, and gave me another hug before taking off for the night.

My mom went back to the casino for a bit and I wandered the ship for a while before heading up to the stateroom for bed.

Well, at least I’ve got a song picked out for tomorrow already. The Titanic song. Ironic.

It had been a busy, thoroughly enjoyable day.  I climbed under the covers, knowing that my time in Europe would soon be coming to a close.

But I’m still here, I thought.  I’m still here.