Growing up Norwegian and knowing my country’s history, I was skeptical about our next stop, Sweden.  Would they even let me in the country?  Would they stare me down like some otherworldly, inferior beast?  Or would I simply have an allergic reaction to Stockholm and retreat to the ship in a miserable heap? You see, the Swedes have a history of perpetually picking on their neighbors.  The Swedes were trash-talked in every country we went to except Germany (the Russians don’t count; they had clearly seen too many episodes of “The X-Files” and had taken the motto “trust no one” to heart)—even the Estonians, Danes, and Finns hated them, and those are about the most docile, polite, open-minded people in Europe.  But nobody hated the Swedes more than the Norwegians.  You can see why I was a bit skeptical.

I hadn’t been expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Stockholm looks like something out of a picture book—a beautiful network of hilly islands connected by bridges over vast waterways, brightly-colored buildings and towers, a massive city center filled with Viking architecture.  The place practically drips with culture and, dare I say, class.  We took a bus to the Old Town of Gamla Stan, where we walked around for quite a while, looking at Viking runes and architecture, shopping, and touring past the Nobel Museum and Drottningholm Palace, where the Swedish royal family lives.  Truly an enchanting place.

We bought some water at a local 7-11, but didn’t have much time to explore there (actually, we didn’t get much time in Sweden at all, just 5 hours or so) before we had to hop on the bus again to go to our main stop: The Nordic Sea Hotel, and the Absolut Ice Bar.

We arrived there and waited outside for a bit, watching the news and getting our first dose of the “real world” in almost two weeks.  We were then ushered in, single file, to get our hooded, furry ponchos and gloves.  The Absolut Ice Bar is exactly as it sounds: A bar, made entirely of ice.  There are ice bars elsewhere in the world, but the one in Stockholm is the original, and the only one that is there year round.  There’s even an Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, but we were nowhere near it.

After we had on our ponchos, hoods, and gloves, looking for the world like some silly combination of Inuit and tourist, we made our way through several doors until we walked into a room covered in blue ice.  It was -5 degrees Fahrenheit in the bar, and we were given the ponchos so we wouldn’t melt the ice, not to keep us warm.  Honestly, I probably could’ve survived without it.  The gloves were necessary, though, especially once we got our drinks.  We were all handed glasses made of ice and filled with Absolut Apeach Vodka, pineapple liqueur, and pineapple juice.  Delicious!  We sat on seats made of ice and propped up our elbows on tables made of ice.  They had different ice carvings around the place, and they changed themes of art every month.  When we were there in June, the theme was faces, so all around were carvings of different faces.  Quite a spectacle!

I had a chat with the barkeep, who was very friendly, also probably around my age.  He asked where I was from and was very curious about Arizona, and we answered questions about our respective cultures for a while before we left the chilly confines of the bar.

I walked outside, and it was a very fine day.  I happened to look to my left, and what I saw gave me chills: A building called the World Trade Center.  I shook it off as I walked across the street to the bus, and we drove through the city once again.  In Phoenix, we have a Walgreen’s or a Starbucks on every corner.  In Sweden, they have H&M on just about every corner.  I was shocked at how many I saw in one area.  I also saw several IKEA stores, not surprisingly.

We passed over numerous canals on our way back to the ship.  Stockholm is made up of 14 islands, and it’s known as the “Venice of the North.”  I can see why.  The entire place looked like one grand movie set.

We got back on the ship and decided to go to the top deck to watch our departure.  I stood next to one of the ship’s crew as we waited to take off, and he had caught wind that one of the ship’s crew had gone into Stockholm on his own and never made it back to the ship.  Our departure was delayed as a result, but as far as I know, the crew member made it onboard again.  We took off, and I watched the city float away from a lounge chair on the top deck, the seagulls circling the ship like it was a giant smorgasbord.

Stockholm is surrounded by tens of thousands of islands in its archipelago, and that was the main thing I wanted to see in Sweden.  The archipelago was absolutely incredible, small mounds poking up through the water all around for a seemingly infinite space.   It was a perfectly lovely day, the Sun creating a white corona around the retreating city, reflecting off the crystal waters that shimmered like a million tiny mirrors.

I almost hate to admit it, but I actually miss Stockholm.

After lounging on the deck, it was time for wine tasting.  A few days earlier, we had been eating lunch when a crew member came by advertising the wine tasting. We signed up for it, paying a nominal fee that was totally worth it.  So, we went down to the Michelangelo dining room, where I was seated next to a very fun British couple.  The man was clearly a connoisseur of wine who gave me plenty of recommendations and made many wry jokes.  He had an exceedingly dry sense of humor and I got a kick out of him and his wife.  We sampled five wines, with each wine being introduced by a new sommelier.  They were all from different cultures and with each new glass we were introduced to the art of toasting.   Toast to anything—to others present, your parents, your country, your love of different cultures, to life, anything will do. Then it’s “Salute!” “Kanpai!” Tokyo style. “Osassuna!” in the Basque tradition. “Cheers!”  Take a long, lingering taste, letting the full flavor of the wine coat your tongue for at least 10 seconds, and swallow.  To some, it was culturally important to drink the entire glass to the last drop, proving you weren’t a wuss or some reactionary revanchist provocateur.  At the end of it all, we had a delightful Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine in a cute little glass that we got to keep.  I said goodbye to my new friends and off we went to the next adventure.

The next adventure proved to be one we had already had: afternoon trivia.  We played well, fought our hardest, and lost.  During the entire cruise, we never won a single trivia game, losing every time either to a Scottish family or a large group from Tennessee.  But I can honestly tell you, I’ve never had so much fun losing.  And I’m quite competitive with things like trivia, so that is saying quite a lot.

Up next: formal night.  We went back up to the room to change into formal clothes and get ready for another fancy dinner.  I wore a different, more painful pair of heels than I had during the first formal night.  Just walking down our hallway, I regretted the decision, silently lamenting the ridiculous truth that “beauty equals pain.”  I’m sure I didn’t look very beautiful, though, trudging down the hallway on a pair of stilts.  And at the 6’0” height I was at, the ground looked painfully far away.  I feared I would meet it soon.  Why didn’t I take them off?  I did, at every possible interval.  And since that day, I’ve never put them on again.

We ate dinner with Brian and Thelma, enjoying our time together once again.  We were a bit more reticent this time, likely because we knew that the cruise would be over in just a little over a day, and we sat in silence, watching the Stockholm archipelago passing quickly by outside the picture window, making it look like somebody was skipping gigantic stones across the water.

Agreeing to meet up a little later for more trivia, we made the long, painful trek back to the room.  I kicked off my shoes before we had even made it into the stateroom and breathed a deep sigh of pleasure and relief.  I changed my clothes in a hurry and went down to Club Fusion for more trivia.

Needless to say, we lost.

We had some time to kill, so Mom headed over to the casino with Al and Linda in tow.  Brian and Thelma went off on their own, and I kicked around the ship for a while before heading back to Club Fusion to watch the “Newly Wed, Not So Newly Wed Gameshow” with Cruise Director Lee.

It was funny (and at times a bit awkward) to hear what kind of questions the couples were being asked in the gameshow.  Some were very personal and odd, and the three couples tried to answer questions about each other to the best of their ability, sometimes coming up with some hilarious answers.  I sat in the back and had a drink while I watched, laughing the whole way through.

Pretty soon, tons of people were pouring into the Club, as the Princess Pop Star Competition’s final heat was about to commence.  Every night of the competition, more and more people showed up.  By the final heat, the entire place was filled up.

Mark waved at me from across the room as the opening music turned on.  He ran to the stage in a state of pure merriment, introducing the audience to the night’s festivities.  If I remember correctly, I was the third singer that night.  As suggested by Mark the night before, I sang “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.

The thing about singing is that I love to do it, but I’m never completely happy with any performance I do.  Not once have I ever performed up to my standards, so it brings with it a sense of disappointment, even though I love doing it so much.  That night was no different.  I messed up in several spots as I do every time I sing, though no one seemed to notice, and I think I had about one note that I was actually pleased with.  Even that pleasure in the one note was rare for me, so I finished feeling only mildly okay with the whole thing.

The audience seemed to enjoy it though, and Mark did as well, giving me a massive hug once again as I finished, whispering his approval in my ear.  I went to sit down with my mother and friends to listen to the rest of the performers, feeling back to normal again and not so nervous as I had been before.  Linda was crying again, and I think my mom may have shed a tear or two as well.

There weren’t quite as many singers as there had been the night before, so it wasn’t long before the vote was called.  Again, I didn’t vote.  And again, Mark sang a song for us while the vote was being counted.  He sang “If Tomorrow Never Comes” by Garth Brooks, a very sweet song about how he hoped that if he died the next day, the girl he loved would know how much he loved her, and the knowledge of that would sustain her for the rest of her days.  It was beautiful, sweetly sung and heartfelt, a bit of a haunting invocation, and he looked almost angelic.  Mark being somewhat mercurial though, had to add some devilishness in there, and spiced it up a bit in a few places, strutting across the stage and giving somewhat suggestive looks to the audience, even winking at me a few times.  I got a video of part of the performance and am always amused as I watch it.

He was given the vote tally after he finished and seemed practically giddy.  He called up the first winner, Monica, a girl a bit younger than me from San Francisco, who had sung “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys (apropos, this song had also been sung by the young girl whose show was onboard a few days before, Katrina Rose).  Then he called up the second winner—me!

Cool.

He hugged me as I came up and then stood next to me, directing us to take a bow.  I did, awkwardly, and then he passed in front of us, pointing to his cheek to seek a kiss.  We obliged and then he dismissed everyone.  Lots of people came up and bombarded me with congratulations.  Mark was the first, giving me yet another big hug and a kiss on the cheek.  He told me that I would be singing the Celine Dion song once again the next night at the grand finale, against all the winners from the past few days, so I was relieved to not have to choose a song again. My mom found me and gave me a big hug, as did Linda, Thelma, and Brian.  We all walked out together and stood out on the deck for a while.  A British couple (it’s always the British, I love them!) came up to me and congratulated me, saying they had been rooting for me for the last few days.  It sticks with me because the man looked a lot like Bilbo Baggins, and I was charmed by them both.

I went back up to the room, getting many well-wishes along the way.  I watched TV alone in the room for a while and then fell asleep as the ship gently dipped back and forth in the water (“Rock me gently, rock me slowly…”).

The sound of the waves on the open sea was my lullaby, and it sings perfectly every time.

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