If I haven’t mentioned yet how much I love the open sea, let me say it now: I love the open sea.  Forgive my lackluster delivery, but it’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description.  I can give you all sorts of facts and illustrations to describe places like the Stockholm archipelago or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, but some places just demand silence, like a quiet, forbidden summer romance that can never be discussed. I’ve been trying since I’ve been back to fumble around for words to comfortably frame where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced, but it’s all in vain.  I can’t describe how I feel about the sea. I could take pictures, but you’ve seen some already.  I could shoot a video, but that doesn’t translate much. You could be there and feel differently.  I was there, and I simply feel glad that I had my eyes open the whole time—that I had lived to see such beauty.

It was our last day at sea, and our last day of the cruise.  We would spend the day on the sea, bound for Copenhagen once again, where we would dock and all be shuttled to the airport, then hop on our respective planes back to our homes across the globe, always carrying with us the ties we had made with the people and places we had visited.  It was a bit of a sobering feeling, but I was determined to make the most of every moment I had left.

I woke up a bit later than I wanted to, but not by much, so I didn’t kick myself too hard for that sin. I got ready in a hurry and enjoyed breakfast on the freezing 15th deck, bundled up in the scarf I got from Denmark and the hoodie I got in Norway, enjoying fruit tarts, honeydew, and a breakfast sandwich with my morning coffee.  Cruise Director Lee was on the outdoor movie screen, discussing the process for disembarkation.  I sullenly listened.

Mom had a cigarette in the smoking area while I finished breakfast.  When I walked over she was sitting at a table with a lady who spoke almost no English, just Spanish.  We tried as best we could to communicate, me fumbling around with my limited Spanish (You’d think I would know more Spanish, living in Arizona, but I know enough to order off the menu, and that’s about all.  I took French and German as my languages in high school and college…much more practical in my part of the world, I know).  The three of us agreed it was a lovely trip, figured out where we all hailed from, and extolled the virtues of each other—nice, friendly, lovely, and left as friends…somehow.

I was bound and determined to participate in morning trivia, so we went down to Club Fusion and had a seat.  It was just us in the group this time.  One of the assistant cruise directors led the trivia that morning—Andrew, from Canada, a funny and handsome young man.  We had a blast and lost of course.

We stayed put in our seats afterwards to play Bingo (there was a $2250 snowball jackpot, which nobody won), hosted at first by Colin from Scotland, and then Mark took over.  Brian joined us at our table as we played.  All of us lost (when it comes to gambling, I am a negative force to be reckoned with, apparently) but had fun.  We ordered drinks, as it was after 10AM at that point and not taboo.  I decided to change it up a bit and I ordered a strawberry daiquiri instead of my traditional Midori Sour.  The waiter asked me if I wanted a small or a medium, and I thought a medium would be fine, so I ordered that.  He brought out what looked like a giant fish bowl filled with the red, slushy material.  My eyes widened as he set it in front of me.  I’m actually surprised the table didn’t buckle underneath the weight of the thing.  But I am not a wasteful person—over the course of the next hour at the table, I drank the whole thing and, of course, felt miserable at the end.  The waiter came back and asked if I wanted something else, and I very quickly put a stop to that idea.  I thought I was quick about it, anyway…for all I know, I could’ve been moving very, very slowly.

By the time bingo was over, we decided to grab lunch at the Wheelhouse Bar, where they were serving an authentic British pub lunch.  I was all over that like white on rice, believe you me.  The Beatles were playing in the background as I ordered fish and chips (cod, of course) and a Guinness.  Guinness and Dos Equis are about the only beers I’ve ever had that I’ve even come close to liking, though by that point in my life, I had yet to finish a single beer.  And let me tell you, that Guinness was delicious, especially with the fish, and it was the very first beer I ever finished.

Like I said, everything tastes better on a cruise ship.

After that, I had yet another appointment to keep at the Lotus Spa—this time, for a seaweed wrap and full body massage.  The seaweed wrap was…odd, but cool.  First, I was painted from head to foot with hot green slop that tingled as it was put on, and then wrapped firmly in tin foil like Sunday’s roast.  Then the massage therapist placed a screen over my eyes and left me wrapped in the darkness for about 15 minutes.

This must be what it feels like to be inside a womb…tight, confined, smelly, tingly, dark…

The massage therapist came in and released me from my embryonic sanctuary, leaving me to hose off the Nickelodeon slime in the shower.  I must admit, it felt awesome.

I was thoroughly relaxed as I went to lay down for my massage.  Massages are always painful for me.  I had an allergic reaction to the lotion at the very first massage I ever had (last year) and thought to swear them off.  My massage therapist this time said my back was covered in knots (no surprise), and that if I ate more alkaline foods, I would be relieved.  Since I’ve been back I’ve tried it—so far, so good.  After the initial pain subsided, I was far beyond relaxed.

At the end of the whole thing, I soared back down to my stateroom to wash the massage oil out of my hair (the scalp massage was like a bit of Heaven) and get ready for the rest of the day.

I was just in time for afternoon trivia at Club Fusion.  Brian, Thelma, Al, Linda, and my mom were all there with me.  The same waiter from the morning came over and asked me if I wanted something to drink.  I gave him a hearty “No thanks” and he looked bemused as he said “No daiquiri?” That was no daiquiri, that was an itinerary.

After we lost, we went to dinner, our last together.  It was a sad ordeal, but I still ordered all sorts of things I hadn’t tried before, feeling like a regular bon vivant the entire time.  We all enjoyed Baked Alaska for dessert and got up from the table to go play music trivia at Club Fusion.

As we got up, our waiters said their goodbyes.  God bless them, I don’t remember their names, but one of them was such a sweet guy from the Philippines, and he pulled me into a tight hug as we departed and said “God bless you.”  I was moved by this and returned the blessing, heartened to have yet another spiritual connection with someone I probably won’t see again and is now halfway across the world.

Music trivia was a blast with Al, Linda, Brian, Thelma, and my mom.  We drank, laughed, and I got to make use of the fact that I have over 9,000 songs on iTunes, considerably improving our chances of winning.  Of course, we didn’t, but that’s not the point.  We had an uproarious time, enjoying each other while we still had the chance.

Brain Buster trivia was next, and also in Club Fusion.  Mark hosted the festivities this time.  During the trivia games, we had to be very quiet when discussing answers to the questions so as not to give anything away to the other teams scattered broadcast throughout the room, and sometimes Al would get loud.  Thelma and I shushed him so many times that after a while he got fed up and mocked us, saying “Shut up Al, shut up!” in a Donald Duck voice.  Well, that was just too much and we giggled madly, causing Mark to look over at us to see what the commotion was.  I shushed everyone again so we wouldn’t get in trouble but we still laughed quietly.  Even now, I’m laughing just recalling it.

We had a bit of time to kill before the karaoke grand finale, so we all walked around the ship for a while.  Al and Linda walked off for a little while, and my mom and I had coffee with Brian and Thelma before heading back to Club Fusion.

The assistant cruise directors had pulled out all the stops for us that night.  Instead of the contestants sitting in the audience, they had created a “green room” for us.  It was really just a section of the stage they had curtained off.  We sat back there for the pre-show and they had champagne and water for us to drink, presumably to loosen up.  One of the assistant cruise directors informed us that after each performance, we would come back to be interviewed on camera for everyone to see.  They pretended that we were on the 21st floor (which doesn’t exist, of course) in an ultra-secret, hip lounge area having a huge party where the champagne flowed freely.  We sat back there and waited for the festivities to begin.

I couldn’t see him from my vantage point, but Mark came out and introduced the first performer, Bill from Alabama, singing “Walk Through This World With Me.”  He was an older gentleman, and about halfway through his song (we could see the TV screens broadcasting his performance from where we sat), he beckoned to his wife and he held her as he sang the song to her.  It was very sweet.

Next up was Monica, the girl who won with me, and she sang the same Alicia Keys song that she had done before.  I was sitting next to Grace in the green room and she and I were talking quietly while Monica sang, so I didn’t get to hear much of it.  She did great though, from what I heard.

After that, Mark introduced Jordan from Tennessee, singing “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash.  I don’t think I had ever really listened to the lyrics before, so when he came to the part, “I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him die” I shook my head and looked quizzically at my neighbors.  What a sentiment!

I was really nervous when Mark called my name.  I had been handed a microphone right before I drew the curtain back to go on the stage, and he was already gone by the time I got out there, so I was immediately alone and more nervous than before.  I sang as well as I could but left thinking that I had done worse than the night before.  But the audience hadn’t thought so.  When I hit the first instrumental break, everybody started spontaneously cheering wildly, eliciting a big, nervous smile of amusement from me.  They cheered loudly when I left, too, so I at least felt good at the end.  I walked back into the green room and prepared for my interview.  I don’t remember the lady’s name who interviewed me, only that she was Canadian and very friendly.  They had prepared several questions for us, and at the end we each answered a weird one.  I think my odd question was “Would you rather have hot wax dripped over your eyeballs, or have a corkscrew put through your belly button?”  I don’t remember what I said, but I hope to never have to decide in real life.  The lady had a glass of champagne in her hand and pretended with each interview to be drinking heavily.  I decided to play along and grabbed a bottle.  We toasted each other on camera and I drank straight out of the bottle in front of everyone, not quite believing that I was doing such a thing.  It got a few laughs, though, so I felt my entertainment duties had been completed.

I had a seat and the next person was called out—Joel, singing “Mandy” once again.  I could really listen to Joel sing all day long, he had such an amazing voice.  He was very quiet and seemed shy (even more so than me, which must be a lot), but seemed like a pretty cool guy.  And such talent!

After him came sweet Grace, singing her Elvis song once again.  It had been really low for her before so they cranked it up a couple of keys and she did a lovely job.

We were all finished at that point, so one of the assistant cruise directors, Melissa, came out and sang Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as the votes were counted. It was bloody fantastic, and she had a gorgeous voice.  Once she finished and all the votes had been counted, Mark called all of us out to stage for a final round of applause and a final bow.  “And the winner is…”

Joel!!  I was quite pleased and not a bit surprised as we all clapped enthusiastically for the very talented Joel, who was looking at his feet and smiling bashfully as all eyes were on him.  Mark and the other assistant cruise directors handed out prizes to everyone. We all got a Princess Cruises reusable tote bag filled with keychains and pens, and Joel got a bottle of champagne in addition for winning.  Mark announced that they had no second place prize, and directed everyone to give Joel another round of applause before dismissing us.

I turned to Joel, who was standing next to me, and offered him a handshake and heartfelt congratulations.  He reciprocated very graciously, but we were interrupted when I felt an arm go around my waist from behind.  Joel turned to congratulate the other contestants and I turned to see Mark standing there.  He gave me a lengthy, bone-crushing hug and two kisses on the cheek before standing back and saying that I had come in second place.  Joel had 25 tables vote for him, compared to my 18, so I was a bit surprised to have lost to a professional singer by a mere 7 votes.  I started to talk to another assistant cruise director, the same one who had conducted my interview, and she gave me a big hug and said that she thought I should’ve won, which I thought was very generous of her. We were interrupted by Brian and Thelma.  They both gave me big hugs and said their goodbyes.  We had promised to keep in touch and traded e-mail addresses, but I was still incredibly sad to say goodbye to such wonderful people, especially since we had grown so close and comfortable with each other.  I wistfully let them go.

Next up were my mom, Al, and Linda.  Hugs all around, and congratulations.  We made our way out of the Club and I watched as my mom tried to force her way through the door onto the deck, the wind forcing the door closed.  I decided to stay inside for a while as they made their way onto the deck, so I went back into Club Fusion, looking for people I knew and receiving many congratulations as I made my way through, my prize still in hand.

As I was looking around, I ran into Mark once again, coming out from behind the bar.  He saw me and beckoned me over furtively.  “Do you like champagne?” he asked.  I nodded in the affirmative and he looked around to make sure we weren’t being watched as he tucked a bottle of champagne into my Princess Cruises tote bag, the same champagne that Joel had received for winning.  I told Mark how supported I felt by him the whole time, and he was pleased.  He asked what I did back home, whether I was in school or working, and when I told him I was a tech at a hospital and a Master’s student in psychology, he gave me a face that suggested intimidation, and then slyly asked what I thought of his psychological profile.  I laughed and told him that I thought he was good, safe from mental disorder. I told him also that he had a fantastic singing voice and he related to me his singing adventures in England.  After our conversation, he had to go meet with some people that had been waiting for him, so he hugged me tightly, kissing my cheek again before saying goodbye.  He looked back at me as he walked away and waved, joining the group that had been waiting for him, and disappeared through the door.

I continued to look around for people I knew, and ran into a few of the British couples I had met during the trip, and they offered congratulations and wished me well in my travels back home.  I wished them the same and walked up to the stateroom to drop off my spoil from karaoke, coming back downstairs afterwards to wander some more. I had determined at the beginning of the trip to stay awake long enough to see the sky grow completely dark for at least one night, and this was my last chance.  On my way walking through the Piazza, I saw Joel singing with Melissa, one of the assistant cruise directors, in the Crooner’s Bar.  I sat down and listened until they finished, then wandered around the Piazza some more.

I came around a corner and ran into two Scottish couples who gushingly congratulated me and offered to buy me a drink.  I declined the drink but went to sit with them in the Crooner’s Bar, and we talked for a good 45 minutes, laughing and having an uproarious time together.  It was well after midnight when we finished, and I said goodbye, thanking them for a good time.  I decided to wander through the empty corridors of the ship and take pictures of as many things as I could.  We had to be awake at 5AM to get ready to leave the ship, but I wanted to stay up as late as possible to soak it all in for one last time.

At around 1:30 I decided I needed coffee, so I wandered up to Lido Deck 15 to grab a cup.  The entire place was empty, but it had finally gotten completely dark outside (it hadn’t been dark for more than half an hour at that point).  The stars were not to be seen against the brightness of the ship’s lights, but the Moon shone bright and full over the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea.  I sat with my coffee in a lounge chair next to the pool, which had been covered in nets for the night.  I had the place to myself, and watched the dark sky for several minutes, marveling over the manner of its beauty: enigmatic, serene, enjoying my coffee and reminiscing over all the things I had done in the two weeks prior.  I must be the most blessed girl in the world to get to have such experiences and make so many excellent connections with such fascinating people. I was truly relaxed, for the first time in what felt like eons, drawing breaths unencumbered by worries, schemes, or anxieties, reassured that the world was indeed a magnificently big, marvelous place.

My reverie was interrupted by several crew members in matching windbreakers, who had come to remove the padding from the deck chairs for the night.  That’s my cue, I thought, grabbing my coffee and moving indoors.

My mom had been in the casino until it closed, and reported that her final tally for the trip was that she had broken even at the casino.  We had both arrived at the stateroom at around the same time and were packing our last few items in our carry-on bags slowly, as though packing slower would mean we would get to stay in Europe longer.  Neither one of us was prepared for it to end.

“Inception” was playing on the TV as we packed it in for the night, finally succumbing to the siren song of sleep.  We slumbered for three hours.  Thelma, Brian, Linda, and Mark all graced my dreams, and when they hugged me, I could feel it.