Category: Travel


Driving Lessons

I haven’t written anything at all on this blog for quite some time, so I thought I’d try my hand at some fiction: 

My mother-in-law was driving the car when the world changed forever.  The cruise control was on as we flew over a patch of black ice.  I had been in the back seat in between my twin boys, one of whom had hit the other in the face with his rattle.  I remember how grating the crying had been on my ears, but I imagine it was only because I had had such little sleep. Upon recollection,  I can’t see why it was so bad.  I would give anything to hear that crying again.

But it wasn’t to be.  The car flew off the road and into a tree where we waited for half an hour for another car to pass and help us. My mother-in-law suffered a few broken bones, as did I.  But my boys were too young, and the force of the impact killed them both instantly.  And I sat for half an hour, pinned between the carseats, knowing they were dead.

My husband was on business in Japan, and I had to be the one to tell him that he would never hold our sons again. It nearly tore the entire family apart.  He refused to speak to his mother for quite some time, and he could barely look at me.  It was hard to look at him because every time I saw his eyes, I saw the eyes of Elijah and Noah.  When I looked at my husband, I was looking into the face of Loss itself.

The pain of losing my boys never left, but it did change.  Life carried on, and our marriage carried on.  And, in time we found ourselves talking of having children again.  Five years after the accident, I gave birth to Lily, and we were joyful for the first time in what felt like centuries.

As she grew up, we told her about her brothers, but could never say how they died, and every time we took her for a car ride, we never mentioned the boys. We were careful, and perhaps overly cautious.

When Lily was 15, her father passed away.  My world had shattered once again, shattered like the tinkling glass of the windshield that he went through.  For all of our carefulness, it seemed like we couldn’t escape the confines of all the cars that seemed for all the world like so many coffins.

Lily had doted on her father, and she missed him terribly, but we clung to each other in the midst of our pain and grew closer because of it.

I decided that I was going to teach her how to drive, that it would be the most grueling experience of her life up to that point.  If nobody else lived, it would be her, and I would be the one to show her. I would show her because I was the only one left, the only one never in the driver’s seat when worlds collapsed.

I took her everywhere–gridlocked cities, icy boulevards, hairpin turns on mountainsides, and she performed beautifully.  With each passing day, I became more and more reassured that she would make it.

One day, she hit a rabbit that was trying to cross the road.  It appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and she screamed and started to cry when she hit it.

“Pull over,” I said to her.  The country road we were on had a soft shoulder, and she coasted easily over and shut off the engine.

“If you’re crying in the driver’s seat, you won’t be able to see well enough to keep going.  You’ve gotta pull over when that happens.”  I was facing her, and she had her head in her hands. Lily nodded in agreement with me, and we sat in the car for a while as she pulled herself together.  And we kept going, knowing once again the dark feeling of life lost.

The day before her 16th birthday, I had planned the ultimate driving test–one that would require as much from me as it did from her, if not more.   I clicked myself into the passenger seat, and she asked me where we were going.  I told her to head East and get on the main road to Chicago.

About 10 minutes into our journey, I began the story.  “Your grandma was driving, and it had been so long since I had slept…”

By the time we got into the heart of Chicago, my daughter was in tears.  I directed her around tight city corners and she kept saying, “I need to find a place to park. Where can I park, so I can cry?”

But there was no place to park.  The city was packed, the few spaces along the streets had been taken up, and we had no change for a parking meter anyway–I had made sure of that.

“Lily, there is no place to park.  Sometimes you cry, and there’s no place to stop, so there’s only one thing to do–you have to keep going.  You have to muster up your courage and drive through the tears. Be careful, but keep going.”

I remember her half glance at me through red-rimmed eyes, the headlights of the passing cars glinting off the rivulets running down her cheeks.  She only paused for a second, but then nodded in understanding.

I knew she understood, because she never once had an accident.  She had many more tears, many more nights of hot cheeks and puffy eyes, more close calls and more hardship.  And, she had even more days of pure joy, more moments of ease, times of smiling and times of doting on the man she married, and later on, her children. My grandchildren.

Bless her heart, she kept driving. We both did.

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Everything happens in threes, so it is said. When we arrived in Copenhagen that final morning, it was the third time we had been to Denmark in less than 2 weeks, and the end of a magnificent adventure.  We awakened easily enough and had a final coffee at the International Café.  Dear Gina, whom we had met on our first day, was there, and we said our goodbyes to her as we enjoyed our drinks.

We had been instructed to meet in the Wheelhouse Bar at 7:30 to wait for our bus to the airport.  It was not too long of a wait once we got there, but I sped around the ship a few more times, looking for people I knew and finding no one to say farewell to.  I was sad that I had missed Miguel and several others that I had wanted to see again.  I had seen Linda the night before and we said our goodbyes on a crowded elevator, tears streaming down her cheeks as she hugged me, saying an “I love you” before the doors closed.  Linda and my mom had grown especially close and both had cried when they said their farewells.  I was sad to also have missed Bohovina and Raj, our friends and companions in Germany.  Time had run very short, though, so I made my way back to the Wheelhouse Bar, and we were ushered off the ship one final time.  I looked at its massive hulk over my shoulder once more as we got on the bus, and we were shuttled to the airport.

In spite of the small amount of sleep we had gotten the night before, we were wide awake, thanks to the wonderful effects of coffee, the legal addictive stimulant that had helped to fuel us each day of our trip.  We stood in line to scan our passports and get our tickets at the airport, the lines thick and twisting in the stark-white, sterile expanse.

My mother and I were laughing together, thinking of all the fun.  We started quietly singing “Yesterday” by The Beatles and smiled at each other, recalling our British pub lunch from the day before, and how we had sung along to The Beatles at our lunch table.  We had come on the trip not knowing how we would get along together in such close proximity, but were pleasantly surprised to learn that sometime over the course of my progressive ascent into adulthood, we had become friends.  Mom and I had long been close but frictional in that closeness, much like polar opposing magnets.  We both have mile-long stubborn streaks and different interests, but love for one another.  We’ve been to Hell and back together, and this trip was our little taste of Heaven.  It brought us even closer, and I am happy to now have that memory to hold onto for the rest of my life.

There were a few people standing behind us as we talked, and one of them called out to me: “Hey! Are you that girl who sang last night?  You did great!”  I laughed and said thank you, and we chatted for a while, discovering that all of us were from Arizona.  We moved through the line and were directed to another line to check in our luggage.  I was recognized for singing by a few people in that line as well, and each time I laughed—nobody has ever recognized me in an airport before, and certainly not for singing. It was a pretty nifty feeling.

I had had my champagne that Mark had given me in my carry-on bag before realizing that it couldn’t be carried on the plane, so I did a quick shuffle of items in my bags, hoping and praying that the champagne bottle would survive in my checked luggage without breaking and drenching all of my clothes and souvenirs.  The guy behind the check-in counter was helpful in that and very friendly (I have yet to meet a Dane I didn’t like), and we made our way through the airport to find our terminal.

When we got into the main center of the airport, I was shocked at how much the Copenhagen Airport looks like a shopping mall.  Stores were everywhere, selling everything from clothes and accessories to electronics, alcohol, cosmetics, and groceries.  Mom and I sat and had something to drink while we waited, trying to work ourselves up to finally going through the airport security line.  It wasn’t too long before we had finally mustered ourselves into it.

We got in a long line for security and on our way, we ran into Raj and Bohovina!  We were all so pleased to have caught each other and exchanged hugs.  We had seen each other on the ship a few times after we had spent the day together in Germany, and they had come to watch me perform at the karaoke finale.  They paid me a compliment about it and said how glad they were to have met us.  We didn’t have long to say our goodbyes, as the line was moving rather rapidly, so we said goodbye rather wistfully and then departed.

I suppose I must’ve left my sunglasses on my head or something, because an alarm went off when I walked through the metal detector.  I was signaled over to get a pat down by a friendly if somewhat intrusive security agent. I hadn’t been to an airport since the new TSA regulations had taken effect, and had been dreading getting the TSA royal rubdown.  It wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared.  I was ushered through without a hitch and we went to our gate.

As soon as we arrived at the gate, we were informed that our gate had changed, and was now on the opposite side of the airport.  So, we walked to the new gate.  When we got there, we were informed that our gate had been changed again and was on the opposite side of the airport.  Tiring of what was turning out to be a goose chase, we sat in the center hub, equidistant from all gates.  Eventually, we wandered over to the proper gate, where our passports were scanned.  I was selected at random for yet another pat down by security, this time in a private back room next to the terminal. The agent was very friendly; I was slightly nervous.  Again, they found no bombs or illegal weaponry and let me pass.

I’ve been trying to learn Danish for some time, so I grabbed a Danish newspaper from the newsstand and read it while listening to my iPod’s Dansk playlist in the crowded terminal.  We were finally called to board and discovered to our happy surprise that we had been upgraded to Economy Extra, and had 2 seats together.

Our last flight on Scandinavian Airlines had been like a little trip to my own personal circle of Hell. Sure, it promised amazing things to come on the other side, but the process of a transatlantic flight can be slightly traumatic.  Picture it: No matter where you sit or happen to be going, there will be at least one horribly smelly person on your flight.  The engines drone on and on without variance, almost making one yearn for turbulence just to break the monotony, the gruesome sense of being in suspended animation.  Eight seats are stacked across three rows. Everyone stares straight ahead, bodies contorted into unnatural positions, legs suspended at the same angle for countless hours, feet ballooning like twin Hindenburgs, positively yearning for the cart of overpriced drinks and mushy food that would make prison inmates riot to come your way, for scorched coffee and another inevitably boring movie starring some insipid Hollywood celebrity, thinking that one more minute of the mental hospital-like environment would prompt you to happily open the emergency door and get sucked into thin, hazy air.

I am, of course, exaggerating terribly.  Long flights aren’t terribly fun, but the destination is what propels you to keep taking such flights.  Before the plane takes off, I spend my time people-watching.  They wind slowly through the center aisle, some looking for their seat, others looking for free space to stow their bags in overhead bins, each carry-on telling a story of a long time away from home.  I wonder about those stories, if any of those people have had a great adventure or are coming home from a great heartbreak.  Airports can be places to cry, places to hide, or places to discover; everyone looks for something to find, and airports can help people find plenty in this world.  I wonder what these lined-up, thoughtful looking people in the aisle have found.

Our seats were excellent on the flight.  I enjoyed being at the window seat and looked out longingly at Copenhagen.  As we took off, we flew over the coast, and I caught my last sight of the Emerald Princess, looking stately as it waited for its newest set of passengers to dazzle, and I missed it thoroughly.  We passed over Oslo as the movies began (everyone had their own personal TV screen and a great selection of movies, music, even video games to choose from, and you could also watch the flight path and the world below, if you so desired), and I silently said my goodbyes to my homeland.  Soon we were over the Shetland Islands of Scotland, enjoying a glass of wine at 35,000 feet.  Not long after that, we were over Greenland, taking pictures of glaciers as they covered mountains, meeting an icy Atlantic at the coast, the thermometer telling us that below, it was -75 degrees outside.

I listened to Billie Holiday’s melancholy “I Must Have That Man” as we passed over Nova Scotia, thoughtful over how quickly the return flight seemed compared to the flight over.  Soon we were over Boston, preparing for our descent.

I hadn’t been to New York in 11 years, and I took pictures from the plane as we descended over the iconic skyline.  We exited what was perhaps the best flight I had ever been on, and wound through customs in New York.  The passport line was incredibly long, and in the line, someone waved over to me and asked if I was the girl who had sung on the ship the night before.  I couldn’t believe I was still getting recognition for that, and we had a nice chat as we waited.

Our flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for several hours, so we sat outside the airport for a while, parked under a Sun that felt foreign on our skin, listening to a type of urban percussion I had not heard for years.  It was a sound that felt comfortable and welcome, like a visit from an old friend, though it was only the sound of honking horns, shouting accents indigenous to Jersey and Brooklyn, and the restless hum of humanity bustling through the streets, busy with Heaven knows what.

We went to the terminal for Continental and were directed to hop a shuttle to the terminal on the other side of the airport, to the United counter.  We went back and forth a couple of times, trying to figure out where our plane was.  Eventually, we found it and made our way through security.  No TSA groping this time.

We split a sandwich and I had a Green Machine smoothie to perk me up a bit before another long flight.  We sat next to a couple in the terminal who were also on the Emerald Princess and from Arizona, and chatted with them for a while, as they had also recognized me from singing the night before.

When we boarded the plane, we were told that the only in-flight entertainment being offered was DirecTV, and we had to pay for it.  So instead of indulging, we napped from New York to Arizona, waking up shortly before we descended over the nighttime desert, the few twinkling clusters of light on the ground that were visible looking like cruise ships on dark waters.  Depressing.

We landed in Arizona and stepped off the plane into a demoralizing and ungodly heat.  One step, and I felt my blood start to evaporate in the 100+ degree temperatures (and it was 10PM).  I was thoroughly sick.  We called the number for the shuttle to pick us up as we grabbed our luggage (the champagne from Mark had happily made it intact) and went to the curb to wait for pickup.  We didn’t have to wait for long in the heat, thankfully, and we were transported to our car.

In spite of the sleep we had had, we were both exceedingly tired as Mom drove down Grand Avenue to get home.  Along the way, we got pulled over by a cop and my mom got a speeding ticket with a hefty fine.  We got to her house and I pulled my car out of her garage, marveling at the now-foreign feeling of driving.  As she pulled in, I noticed that she had two flat tires.  And, as soon as she parked, her car battery died.

Welcome home.

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.

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.

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.  

It was our second consecutive day of sunlight in St. Petersburg.  Our tour guides marveled constantly at how lovely it had been, and said we had brought the sunshine with us.  Being that I’m from Arizona, I know we had plenty to spare.

We had done breakfast, coffee, etc. etc. and were making our way towards the Hermitage, one of the three largest museums in the world next to the Louvre and the British Museum. St. Petersburg is made up of about 120 islands, so we passed over many bodies of water, including the very ample River Neva, from which you could see many grand cathedrals and incredible buildings, several of which comprised the Hermitage, running alongside the river.

The Hermitage is an old palace with buildings alongside it that had been converted partially into a museum, much like the Peterhof Palace.  However, the artwork inside the Hermitage is far more valuable.  I won’t go into describing the decadence of the Hermitage, because it is quite reminiscent of the Peterhof Palace in that way.

Yet unlike the Peterhof, we were allowed to take pictures of all the artwork in the Hermitage, as long as we kept our flashes off.  I was very surprised, given the scale of the artwork we saw.  They had two original works by Leonardo DaVinci, one unfinished statue by Michelangelo that you could reach out and touch if you had the inkling and audacity, an entire wing filled with Rembrandt, and one of my most favorite things to see was Raphael’s Bible, a seemingly endless hallway of cerulean blue, and an interlocking web of arches that were painted with numerous scenes from the Bible.  It was overwhelming in its scope and incredible to get pictures of.

We toured through the old palace and looked incredulously on once again to see such lavish expenditure and remember its contrast with the lives of poverty outside the Hermitage’s walls.  It was almost a depressing feeling, seeing all the gold leaf inside and then remembering that millions of Russians had been starved and frozen during the time of the czars (and after) while the aristocrats lived in luxury.

But once we got to the Monet exhibit, I abandoned my sullenness and got excited—Monet is my favorite Impressionist artist.  I went around and took more pictures, and we wound through more famous artists: Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Pisarro, and Van Gogh.  I was amazed to be in such close proximity to some of the most amazing works of art in the world, and we left the Hermitage in a state of amazement.

We were driven back to the ship where we had time for a very quick lunch before our next tour.  We ate prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches with pasta salad at the International Café, then went out to the bus staging area outside of Passport Control, the passport agents as brusque and morose as ever.  I suppose the smile I had received the day before had been a fluke, but I still count it as a victory.

We were bused to the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, one of the most famous and colorful onion-dome cathedrals in Russia, which had been built to commemorate Czar Alexander II who was assassinated at the site in 1881.  We had a very brief time to ourselves to walk around the church and the tourist shops nearby, so I only got a few pictures of the cathedral, but the inside of it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The interior mosaics were extremely intricate.  Religious art was scattered broadcast throughout the entire church, with not a single piece of wall or ceiling untouched.  The painted halos surrounding the angels on the walls actually glowed in the sunlight.  Ambient lighting was everywhere, and it was dark toward ground level, lighter up towards the ethereal, towering ceilings where the sunlight was streaming in through small windows.  I have never seen anything more beautiful than the inside of that cathedral.

We left to see how much time we had left to wander around, and we ended up in a vendor’s bazaar where we ran into an endless assortment of Матрёшка (Matryoshka) dolls, some of them depicting famous personalities like George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and even Osama bin Laden.  We bought some Russian jewelry and hopped on the bus once again.

We weren’t taken very far.  The bus dropped us off alongside a boat on the River Neva, where we were to embark on a canal cruise through the city.  It was a fine day outside, perhaps 80 degrees, and much cooler once we were on the water, the river spray cooling our faces as we toured around the city.  We sped past the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, past luxuriant green parks filled with natives enjoying a rare day of Sun, an old battleship that had been converted into a museum (one of the only free museums in St. Petersburg), and various commercial and private buildings, many of which were in states of decay or undergoing construction.

We passed a very square building with numerous radio towers sticking out of it like a giant porcupine and were informed that it was the former home of those not-so-adorable scamps, the KGB.  The Russians had lived in perpetual fear of that building for years.  They knew that if they were to go there, they would be certainly tortured and possibly dispatched cleanly with a bullet to the temple.  It was still a loathsome place to many, and understandably so.

We sped along under a massive bridge, and we were served champagne before we went under it.  They said it was customary in Russia to drink champagne on such excursions, so we drank to the dregs, feeling like queens.  We made a turn into a small canal and slowed down as we meandered through.

Along the way I noticed a young man running alongside us in the canal.  I remember thinking he must be a real pro marathon runner because he ran alongside us for several kilometers.  Eventually, the tour guide got wind of this and said he’d likely be waiting for us at our final stop, wanting money.  Apparently it happened frequently on the canal tours, and I felt sad that he needed to do such a thing.  Every once in a while he would look over at us and wave as he ran alongside.  He was probably no more than 16 or 17, a real sweet kid.

He was indeed waiting for us at our final destination, and he never breathed a word about wanting money, but he got some from many people, which I was very glad for.  We took one long last look around the city and hopped on the bus to go back to the ship.

One more time through Passport Control.  There are no smiles in this place, just glares of unabashed hatred.  It’s one thing I didn’t miss.  I left them with a smile and boarded the ship once again.

We had made reservations that night to eat at one of the specialty restaurants onboard.  A $20 cover-charge got you a sampling of everything (and I mean everything) on the menu.  We didn’t realize what we had gotten ourselves into until they started bringing us massive quantities of food.   We got servings of ravioli, thick ribbon pasta, whole sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini with tomato sauce, braised mushrooms, baskets of bread, fried calamari, and fresh spinach salad. That wasn’t even the half of it.  By the time we got our main entrees, we were stuffed.  I had about two bites of a Dijon mustard-encrusted flounder before I simply gave up, my stomach tap dancing wildly inside of me.  And they hadn’t even brought out dessert!  I had coffee and a bit of wildberry custard pie before wishing for death or oblivion, something to take away the wretched pain of an indulgent night.  All through dinner I had been dancing on the moon.  And now?  The horror.  The horror.

We watched Russia floating away out the window as we ate.  After that, we decided to walk around and work off some of the 10 pounds we had just gained at dinner.  Mom tuckered out rather quickly and ended up going to bed early (though she told me later that she made a little stop at the casino before bed, much to my amusement), leaving me to wander the ship and find some adventure of my own.  I found it in spades.

Now, maybe to you an adventure is something out of the ordinary, active, and exciting, but I find adventure every day, even in things that many would consider mundane.  I like seeing what strange and interesting things can happen in the everyday occurrences of life, and I’m rarely disappointed by what I find.

I mentioned that I was planning on doing karaoke, and that was the adventure I found that night.  I walked into Club Fusion and had a seat while Mark from the Cruise Director’s staff informed everyone that only two people had signed up for the Princess Popstar Karaoke Competition, and there were 8 other slots available.  I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.  I went up to Mark and he handed me a monstrous book of songs to choose from.  I think I must suffer from some debilitating form of indecision because I couldn’t pick a song until the entries for the contest had closed.  But, since there were only two contestants that evening, Mark opened it up for regular karaoke afterwards, and I was the first person up.

I gave my song choice to the DJ, a very cool guy from South Africa named Clinton, and Mark introduced me to the audience.  He asked me if I had ever sung before and I said that I had, on church worship team for many years.  He seemed a bit taken aback by the information (as many people do, when they find out that I’m a churchgoer…it’s distasteful to some, and I can understand why in many ways) but continued in the introduction, and then I was up there.  Alone.  In front of tons of strangers. Under hot lights.  Sure, I’m probably making it sound like I was terribly nervous, and I do get nervous every time I sing, but it wasn’t as bad as all that.  I had picked out “That Old Black Magic” by Louis Prima and Keely Smith, a song that I had learned only a few weeks before but greatly enjoyed.  I had a lot of fun singing it, too.

When it was over I was greeted by lots of clapping and cheers, which is always an awkward sound in my ears, and something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.  Mark walked over to me to collect my microphone.  He was shaking his head and smiling, arms outstretched, as he enfolded me into a giant bear hug.  I just laughed as I hugged him, and then walked off stage, glad that my moment in the spotlight was over (I’ve never cared for the spotlight, but unfortunately, in order to use a gift like singing, you sort of have to be in front of people. I think it’s in the rule book somewhere).  I had sung, and I had had fun.

I figured I was done.

It was not to be.  Mark came up to me after everything was over and said I should come back the next night, early, so I could pick a song and join the next heat for the competition.  The two men that had sung for the competition that night were already in, so the next night the audience would pick two more to compete at the finale.  He wanted me there, and so did several others who overheard us talking.  I found myself agreeing to it, and Mark seemed very pleased that I was coming back.

I went back up to the room and watched 30 Rock while I dwindled off to sleep.

What the heck was I going to sing?

I turned on the lights and began to get ready, an old Rock Hudson movie called “Pillow Talk” playing in the background.  Our tour was scheduled to leave almost as soon as we docked at 6:30AM, so we prepared quickly and went up to the Lido Deck for breakfast.

It’s important to understand how unpolluted the skies and cities were in Scandinavia.  There was never a hint of brown or the stench of stale smoke and gasoline…that is, until we got to Russia.  I was quite astounded at how quickly the sky had taken on such a grey-brown hue in just a few short hours.  There wasn’t too much to look at on the skyline—a nuclear power plant, dozens of smokestacks spewing gaseous waste into the sky, and a few very utilitarian-looking buildings off in the distance.  The one cathedral that could be seen from the ship was gigantic, capped by a huge golden dome. I found out later that this was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the most prominent in the city.

We ate our breakfast, had our coffee, and went to wait for our tour to begin as usual (I really wish I could spice this up for you, but it seems that no matter where you end up, you develop habits and routines, even in the midst of grand adventure).   This particular time we were required to go through passport control to get our passports stamped (we hadn’t needed to do that except at the airport in Copenhagen). We also needed migration cards, our cruise cards, and our tour tickets to give at the gate, and if you were unlucky enough, you also got a TSA-style rubdown by a burly Russian.  Such fun we had to look forward to!

We left the ship with our tour mates and walked a few hundred meters to Passport Control, an imposing building, the Cyrillic lettering on its façade clearly spelling out some sort of admonition for people to stay away and keep quiet if you see anything…unintended.  Or maybe that’s just the impression I got from all the history book stories of the Cold War, which ended in my childhood.

At any rate, I was a bit nervous walking into the sterile building replete with searching stations and cubicles for the “interview” to get into the country.  We walked up to one of the cubicles and handed our documents to a rather severe Russian lady who stared me down like I was the Antichrist.  She didn’t say a word, but only drilled holes into people with her eyes.  I’m typically a smiley sort of person and I tried my best to appear friendly and perhaps coax a smile out of her, but she was unflappable.  I eventually had to look down at my shoes, the weight of her disapproval was so palpable.  She stared at my documents for what felt like forever, and I was worried that she suspected me of some sort of anti-Russian terrorist plot.  I feared the rubdown, the further gazes of naked hostility from various Russians, and the sense that I might not make it home in anything but a pine box.  But while all this hysteria was going through my head, she finally handed my documents back and waved me through.

Relief poured down my face.  Or, maybe it was just sweat.  All I know is that I was free and clear. The Russians had let me in. They trusted me enough to give me a chance.

Cool.

We walked over to our bus and hopped on.  We drove through St. Petersburg as our guide told us about the city in belabored English.  As I gazed out the window at the non-touristy parts of the city, listening to the stories of St. Petersburg, I found myself becoming very sad.  Many of the city’s inhabitants still call it Leningrad.  Apartments are horrendously expensive, several thousands of dollars a month for even a mildly decent one, and because most people can’t afford them, they go in together on one apartment, sometimes living in one flat with up to fourteen other families.  Because of the constant poverty and extremely harsh weather conditions (it tops Seattle for annual rainfall, and even the biggest rivers in St. Petersburg freeze in the winter), many people have resorted to drinking copious amounts of alcohol.  I was told that no matter how experienced of a drinker you are, a Russian will drink you under the table any day of the week.   It’s a sad plight, which became even sadder when we got to the tourist areas.

We drove past several intensely-colored cathedrals complete with onion domes and cupolas, massive palaces that had been converted into museums, huge commercial buildings and lush parks, marveling at how ironic the city was, a moody and romantic place filled with melancholy, pulchritude, and more than a hint of absurdity.

I noticed with some mild discomfort that the bus was becoming extremely hot, and it was clear that my fellow passengers were feeling the same way, much to their chagrin.  The tour guide said that once we reached our destination we would be provided with a new bus.  I thought it was funny that the same thing had happened just a few days earlier in Aarhus.

We ended up on a country road that took us about an hour outside of the city center to the Peterhof Palace and Gardens.  It was quite a sight to see!  The gardens are multiple acres around the complex, which overlooks the Gulf of Finland.  Several grand fountains litter the grounds, many covered in gold leaf, one of which had been designed by a mob boss.  We parked outside of a line of souvenir shops that we had to walk through to get to the palace entryway.

As I stepped off the bus, I heard a familiar sound that confused me because of the context I was in.  A three-piece ensemble was outside, playing the Star-Spangled Banner, the American national anthem.  I looked over at my mom with incredulity. She merely laughed.

This is Russia, right?

It was a nice little gimmick for the tourists (apparently I am a skeptic), and with that odd memory now firmly implanted in my mind, we joined the fray making their way through the souvenir shops with their proprietors, who were clearly well-versed in the art of the hard-sell tactic.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the palace, but it would’ve been very nearly unnecessary anyway.  Once you’ve seen decadence on the scale that was in that palace, it’s hard to get the images out of your head.  Frescoes were everywhere. The ceilings were all painted or engraved with one thing or another, much of it in gold leaf.  The grand staircases were flanked with regal artwork in shades of grey, red, white, and black.  Marble angels seemed to glow as though internally filled with light. Portraits of czars, generals, and czarinas peppered the walls, hung in golden frames.  Chandeliers posed oppressively around the room, their bronze arms glittering in the sunlight.  There was not a blank space in the place, no part of the rooms that was not turned into some form of artwork.  Famous paintings hung in various places as we moved through the hallways.  The wood floors were designed intricately, with different kinds of wood used to make swirl patterns in the floor.

Part of the palace was filled with artwork and the other part was simply preserved to look as it would have in the time of the czars.  Crushed velvet hugged the rooms like wallpaper.  Tables with glass mosaic tops were set with the finest china available. Tiny staircases wound up to gold-domed galleries.  Passing the ballrooms, one could almost hear the music that had once been played there.  And though there was no air conditioning and it was nearly 80 degrees outside, the place was quite comfortable in feeling, if not completely oppressive in its ostentatious design.

Our tour guide knew so much about the place that, had she said she lived there, I would’ve believed her (so much for my skepticism).  She had a quiet sort of friendliness about her, and reminded me much of my friend Katarzyna from a German class I took in college.  She had a tough streak though, as well, very characteristic of the Russian women I met.

We left the very imperious palace and walked outside among the gardens, looking at the many fountains as we took the long way around to the main garden.  Everything was utterly gorgeous—I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful gardens in my life.  On our way in the direction of the main garden, I began to hear some very grand Russian orchestral music being played.  We were told by our tour guide that the same music was played every day right before the Grand Fountain was turned on.

The view of the main garden was absolutely spectacular.  Dozens of fountains were cascading all around, surrounding a huge fountain going off in the center.  The fountain was a shot of water going up many meters, coming out of a lion’s mouth as Sampson was depicted holding its mouth open.  Everything was covered in gold leaf, and mounted on interlocking marble stones designed to look like a giant checker board.  Two gigantic staircases surrounded either side leading up to the palace.

Our group went up the stairs to start heading back to the bus. We passed once again through the souvenir shops and saw the same group playing music once again—this time, they were playing “Anchors Aweigh,” the theme song of the United States Navy!

Bizarre, but nifty.

As promised, we received another bus that was deliciously cool, and we made our way back to the ship.  We were scheduled to stay in port for another day, so we didn’t stick around for souvenirs or exploration. We went through Passport Control yet again, but this time there was no “severe schoolmarm” look given to me.  The girl behind the counter actually smiled a tiny bit when she realized I wasn’t going to give up on being friendly.

Victory is sweet.

When we got back on the boat we had a light lunch.  I had a mango smoothie (“prepared with love,” according to the barista, who had left the top of my straw wrapper on the straw and folded it into a little heart), fruit tarts, fish, and jello (yes, that’s a weird combination).  I had to eat light because I went to another afternoon tea after that.

I was the first one to show up for the tea.  My mom had decided to go off and do something else, promising to meet me at 4:30PM for afternoon trivia, so I went in and was seated by a very nice waiter from Mexico named Miguel.  He and I had a delightful conversation as we waited for others to be seated at my table, and for the duration of the trip he never forgot my name and I never forgot his.  Eventually two couples came to be seated with me—one from Canada, the other from England.   We all had a grand time chatting about current events and the things we had seen in our ports of call.  Tea was scrumptious yet again and I thoroughly enjoyed the scones with clotted cream.  I adjourned early to play afternoon trivia, and was very glad to have met such lovely people at tea that day.

I arrived at afternoon trivia in the Wheelhouse Bar and found my mom sitting towards the front, very near the member of the cruise director’s staff who was running the show that day, Mark.  Mom and I ordered martinis.  Hers was a raspberry crème brulee martini; mine was a key lime pie martini.  Exquisite.  Mark, the trivia director, saw the waiter bring them to us and told us they were delicious and that we would love them.  All throughout trivia, he talked to us quite a bit, telling us about himself and making us laugh.  That was our first meeting but I was to see a lot more of him during the rest of the trip.

After that, I had a very special appointment: a 20-20-20 treatment at the Lotus Spa—3 treatments, 20 minutes each.  I got a lime and ginger body scrub, a facial, and a back massage.  I floated out of the spa, feeling like a million bucks, and went down to the Botticelli dining room to have dinner with Brian, Thelma, and my mother. I was feeling brave from my victory over the escargot, so I ordered the calamari, thinking that I would get the version of it that looked sort of like onion rings. But no!  They sent out two tiny little squid!  I was horrified at the sight of two dead animals on my plate.  I don’t mind eating animals too much (though I try not to eat them very often), but I just don’t want them looking like animals.  I’d rather have a slab of beef and delude myself into thinking it’s not a cow than to get served an udder or a cow’s face…there are just some things I don’t want to see on my plate.  But, I thought maybe I’d luck out, so I cut off a leg (arm? digit?)  and chewed.

So that’s what a pencil eraser tastes like

After dinner and awesome conversation, I walked around the Piazza, looking at all the merchandise in the boutiques.  I went out onto the deck and saw Mark there, getting ready for what appeared to be a jog around the ship.  We exchanged pleasantries before he headed out.  It was probably close to 9PM at that point and, of course, the Sun was still up.  I sat in a deck chair overlooking the wild and magnificent Gulf of Finland, with my back to the brown cityscape behind me.

I walked back upstairs to the stateroom to look at the Princess Patter.  For several months before the trip, I knew they had karaoke on the ship, and I wanted to sing.  I’d been singing publicly since I was three years old, but hadn’t had an outlet for it for some months.  I kept my eyes on the Princess Patter, and every single night of the trip they had offered karaoke.  I was beginning to think that my chance was almost up because I kept missing it.  That night was no different—I had whiled away my time on deck and missed the whole thing.  I grabbed the Princess Patter for the following day and saw that they were having their first heat of the Princess Pop Star Karaoke Competition the next night, and decided to go and sing.  I only needed to sing once to get my fix, and I was determined that the next night would be it.

I got into my pajamas and hopped into bed while I watched “The Proposal” on TV.  I looked forward to the two tours we had selected for the following day.

I slept very well.  No nightmares of frowning Russians.  It was all smiles.

I hate alarm clocks. I really do.  Nothing sets my stress levels higher, that I can think of, especially when compared to the relatively peaceful sleep I typically enjoy.  Being jarred out of sweet repose by the ever-annoying sound of digitized bells is about as pleasant as gouging out your eyeballs with hot pokers. But as it turns out, you still need to use alarms (in the form of wake-up calls) on vacation. Today was no exception, especially since during the night we lost another hour between time zones, placing us squarely 10 hours ahead of Arizona. Some of our cruise tours were ridiculously early as well and frequently called for a 5AM wake-up time, but it was of no consequence.  I may hate alarm clocks, but I welcomed them on the cruise. They were beacons for me, pointing the way to and promising adventures unknown in the day ahead. I got the wake-up call and turned on the TV.  The movie of the morning was “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and I laughed my way through getting ready that morning. I think by this point of the trip I was finally starting to relax and escape.  I remember that during the first part of the trip I would say to myself, “This isn’t reality; this is fantasy.” That was my mantra to protect myself, but by the time I grew comfortable and relaxed enough where I was, I abandoned the constant repetition of it and really began living in the reality of each moment (it was reality, in truth, no matter how lovely and somewhat surreal it felt).

We went upstairs to the Lido Deck and tucked in to breakfast on the outside deck overlooking Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.  Among the places we traveled, Tallinn is a bit of an anomaly.  The Old City (which makes up the heart of Tallinn) is replete with medieval castles and German architecture, and the entire vibe of the place makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into a world of giant ogres who walk down cobbled streets, hammering passersby into the ground with fists the size of wrecking balls. And yet, for all its old world charm, Tallinn is a modern city, urbane and sophisticated, with all the modern conveniences artfully couched in its architectural memories of the past.  Tallinn is, indeed, the most modern city in the world in the most modern country in the world, in that it is the birthplace of a little company you may have heard of called Skype.  Estonia is also the most connected place in the world, offering Wi-Fi in every corner of the country, much of it free.

I’m sure by now you’ve gathered the general theme of the mornings: Wake up, get ready, eat breakfast, hit the deck, get coffee, wait for the tour, so I won’t bore you with all the ad nauseam recountings.  Needless to say, we did all of those things, and headed out on the tour.

We hopped on a bus and drove around Tallinn very briefly before being dropped off in the Lower Town, full of life and bustle, especially near the Town Hall.  The Town Hall is a rather imposing building that used to house both the City Council and the Courts, but it’s a museum and concert hall today.  Seated perpendicular to the Town Hall are the six gates of the Lower Town, and it’s true fairybook scenery—the gates surround Toompea castle, complete with turrets and towers.  There’s an especially chunky tower that is affectionately known as “Fat Margaret,” and it sticks out among the towers of the castle, the castle being the current government seat.

Along the way around the castle we ran into our first onion-dome cathedral, the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a very famous landmark in Tallinn.  The city has a history filled with wars and takeovers—the Swedes, Danes, Germans, and Russians all had their influence on Estonia, and Alexander Nevsky was our first peek into Russia, which was to be our next stop in the cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.  We were told before going in that we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the cathedral, so I rather slyly turned my camera on video mode and nonchalantly aimed it around the inside of the building, taking video of whatever I could find without drawing attention to myself.  There were several people inside worshipping and chanting, possibly Gregorian, but with an added element I couldn’t place.  We didn’t stay for long for the sake of the sanctity of the worshippers, so we walked downstairs to the outside where we were promptly greeted by two women, clearly beggars.  Every time they received money, they fell on their faces and made loud shouts of thanks to God.  Interestingly, worshippers, or believers in God in general, are a rarity in Estonia.  We were told on the bus ride over that Estonians are the least religious people in the Slavic countries, and also that they have the highest divorce rate of any Slavic country.  Our tour guide didn’t say whether the two were related but I found it interesting.  Also odd for a Slavic country is the fact that the national religion of Estonia is Lutheranism, very similar to all the Scandinavian countries.  I grew up Lutheran, and it’s very much a cultural thing.  My family is Norwegian, and in Norway, there’s nothing more Norwegian than to be a Lutheran, and nothing more Lutheran than to be Scandinavian.  I suppose Lutheranism was picked up in Estonia due to all the takeovers by the Scandinavians, but I was surprised that Estonia wasn’t comprised of mostly Russian Orthodox churches.

At any rate, we walked around the city for about 3 hours, taking in the sights.  We walked up Toompea Hill through little alleyways, passing all sorts of quaint shops along the way.  We came upon an open courtyard at the top of the hill, and there was a little 3-piece ensemble playing traditional Estonian tunes as dozens of people mingled and shopped in the courtyard.  At the very end was what many call the best view of Tallinn.  A very short wall framed the cityscape perfectly, and it was a great place for pictures (and I got many).  We had a bit of time to wander on our own at that point, so we walked over to a place called “Symphony of Amber.”  Amber is a semi-precious stone that Slavic countries are world-famous for producing and distributing.  I bought a pair of earrings and we made our way down the hill once again with our tour group.

Along the way down I heard echoes of something that sounded like Louis Armstrong, but I couldn’t place it.  As it turns out, the city is situated in such a way as to make the smallest noises sound infinitely louder, and I discovered the source of the music was not 10 meters away from me: a street singer who looked like Randy Newman and was clearly homeless and playing for money, singing  his best impression of Satchmo.  A little further down the street I saw another unexpected sight: Shrek and Donkey.  Their costumes were well done and reminded me a bit of the characters at Disneyland, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they were standing there at the base of Toompea Hill, chatting with a tourist.

But that wasn’t the end of the interesting sights! A few meters away from Shrek and Donkey was an artist who had set up shop on the sidewalk and was painting the scenery. And behind him there was an archery contest taking place, complete with men wearing tights, capes, and droopy hats with feathers in them.  Not too far away from them was a giant water closet (or bathroom for you Americans) that looked a bit like an American mailbox, just sitting in the middle of nowhere.  It’s not often that I experience sensory overload, but there was a lot going on in that little area at the base of Toompea Hill.

An anomaly?  An oddity? Sure. That’s Estonia, to a T.

We hopped back on the bus and took a very short drive to what appeared to be a gigantic park.  We got out and walked about 1 kilometer through gardens filled with ponds, swans, large quantities of Queen Anne’s Lace and flowering trees letting go of their white blossoms in the breeze.  A little girl danced in the tall grass as some flowers landed in her hair.  It was surreal and lovely.

As we continued walking, we came upon the pink and white winter palace belonging to Catherine, czarina of Russia, a remnant of the Russian occupation.  It had been partially converted into an art museum, and the first sight I was greeted with upon entrance was a replica of the Venus DeMilo.  I walked through the 3 floors of the palace that were open, and took pictures of the artwork, most of it religious.  There were rooms of the palace that were quite decadent, filled with gold leaf embellishments and lots of intricately-carved marble.  The decadence was actually nothing compared with what I was soon to see in Russia!

We left and walked again through the gardens back to the bus, and back to the dock from there.  There was a long line of souvenir shops alongside our ship, and a rock band playing and singing in Estonian at the end of the shops.  We moseyed through and bought a few things, and I wandered off by myself to go stand at the seashore.  It was a bright, clear day, and the sea was incredibly calm, the waves breaking languidly over concrete barriers separating land and sea.  Our ship was the only one on the horizon, standing out white and crisp against the azure of the sky.  It was a truly great moment, and it stands out clearly upon recollection, even a month after I was there.

We got back on the ship and stood out on the deck looking at the city once again, the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town visible from the ship.  We had more coffee and then went to the stateroom and relaxed for a while, watching a featurette on Stalin on TV.  We had room service that night because we had napped through half the featurette and through most of the evening.  I was frustrated with myself for sleeping that long and missing the happenings on the ship once again, but decided that napping can sometimes be a good thing, especially on vacation.

After dinner, it was close to midnight, and we had already set sail for Russia, losing yet another hour in the process.  I went to bed and slept until around 2:30AM, at which point I was awake for the long haul.  I grabbed my iPod and listened to my Danish playlist until the phone rang.

Wake-up call.

I woke up and kicked myself.  I slept until noon!  That’s one of the pitfalls of not having to wake up early for a tour, I suppose.  So, after I woke up and watched a Fred Astaire movie called “Daddy Long Legs” while I got dressed, I went outside on the deck.  We were surrounded by only the deep blue sea, no land in sight.  We were cruising along at top speed, 22 knots, so it was quite breezy outside, and fairly cold as well. I had thought ahead and brought the Princess Patter with me, the daily program of all the events on the ship for the day, so over lunch I mapped out everything I wanted to do. The first order of business was to go to the International Cafe and have our daily coffee.  On our way there we took a different route through the art gallery on the ship.  There are several hallways filled completely with art, much of which is auctioned off on the cruise.  We made it to the cafe and had our coffee, and I decided that I wanted to go to a traditional British high tea that afternoon.  My mom joined me, somewhat reluctantly, and we were seated by the host.  And wouldn’t you know it, we were seated right next to Brian and Thelma!

I’ve never been to a high tea before so I wasn’t expecting to be fed such massive quantities of food.  They brought out little finger sandwiches, and the one I selected had some sort of fruity caviar on it with avocados.  It was really good, actually, after I took off the avocados (I’m allergic).  I also had a small orange cookie of some sort and a delicious scone with clotted cream on it, and British-style Earl Grey tea with cream.  After about an hour had passed, Brian and Thelma invited us to afternoon trivia, which I jumped at of course, and my mom decided to go with us.

We headed over to Club Fusion on Deck 7 aft (where I would come to spend quite a bit of time) for trivia.  Brian and Thelma had another couple joining us, and we soon met them–Al and Linda from California.  They’re both incredibly vivacious and Al in particular was hilarious, reminding me much of the men in my family.  So, we had our little game of trivia and lost miserably to a team from Scotland.  I remember that one of the questions we were asked had to do with some obscure fact about the United States, and none of us knew it, which probably perpetuates some “Stupid American” stereotype that we’ve all grown to know and resent. But hey, at least we had fun, right?

After trivia we all parted ways.  My mom and I wandered through the photography hall and looked at all the pictures that the professional photographers had taken of everyone.  We found a few of us but were uninterested in purchasing them at that moment, so we moseyed along through the photography hall, past the Crowne Grill and the Explorer’s Lounge, until we came to the piazza.  It was at that point I realized we had almost forgotten that that evening was formal night, as many people were gussied up in their finest.

Formal nights are a tradition at sea, and how many you have is entirely related to how long your cruise lasts.  Ours was 11 days, so we had 2 formal nights.  What happens at a formal night is as follows: You drink copious amounts of free alcohol (I promise I don’t drink much at home at all), eat obscene amounts of food, and generally engage in merry-making with a massive throng of people.  I realize my word choices may have made it seem like I’m describing a Viking feast after a day of pillaging, but I can assure you that everything was quite civilized.

At any rate, we made it back up to the room to get fancier clothes on.  I had brought a black dress with white/gold flowers on it that happily never wrinkles, and a pair of stiletto heels that I figured I’d break my legs wearing (fortunately, both legs are intact). I wore those and walked (maybe “stumbled” is a more accurate term) downstairs to Deck 7 once again.

The Piazza was hopping with elegantly dressed people, including the captain of the ship, who was the host of the evening’s festivities.  My mom and I took seats in the Vines Wine Bar to watch the excitement.  I had a glass of Pinot Noir and some sushi; Mom had a glass of wine and tapas.  The waiters in the area were handing out mimosas and we had those as well.  The crew had set up a champagne waterfall in the middle of the Piazza and the captain was helping serve the champagne.  We watched this all with great fascination before deciding it was about time for dinner.

I got up and commenced the ongoing search for the elusive Botticelli dining room, feeling for the world like Columbo on the heels of a very smart criminal. Eventually though, we found it.  We were late for our usual eating time (6PM) but they accommodated us at the late sitting (it was after 8:30PM) at a different table. Mom found this out the hard way as she had originally gone for the original table and been dismayed to find strangers there.

The waiter handed us our menus and I was not expecting the obscene profusion of choices available to me.  Many of the words on the page I couldn’t even pronounce, and most of the offerings were very exotic. I suppose chefs like to do that when they can–offer up their customers something completely new to their experience, thereby making themselves the initiators into a larger, more exquisite culinary world.  And why fight The Man?  What’s the worst that could happen?

I went head first into this new world that had opened up, and ordered the escargot, chilled tamarind soup, some sort of salmon concoction, and a dessert that I don’t recall.  And after all the alcohol I had just imbibed, I decided I’d better cool it and just order a lemonade. They brought me a Sprite and I learned a valuable cultural lesson: Some cultures interpret “lemonade” as “lemon-lime soda.”  And even though I’m not much for carbonated drinks, I was pleased with the Sprite anyway, and even more pleased to have learned something new (and really, everything tastes better on a cruise ship anyway…even Sprite).

They brought out the escargot and I looked on with some trepidation at the little cups filled with what appeared to be a puddle of butter and some garlic in them, and in the center were these greyish-black creatures that looked a bit like hollow-point bullets.  I skewered one of the bullets and shook my head at the thought of eating something so rubbery, so creepy, so….snaily (that’s not a real word, is it?), but I steeled myself and chewed that sucker up, contemplating with each chew what I thought of the creature.  I liked it, much to my infinite surprise!  After I had finished all six, I was quite sad that my plate was empty. Snails. I’m still surprised.

The tamarind soup came out next (I still don’t know what a tamarind is) and it was delicious.  Then it was the salmon and dessert.  All exquisite!  And all very, very filling.  That was a common feeling on the ship: fullness. It makes one wonder how the chefs onboard could possibly keep up with the Great Eternal Maw out in the dining room.  Yet keep up they did, and then some!  Not only was the food ubiquitous and constant, it was also presented in a way that intermingled the food business with show business.  Everything was about quality and presentation in an aesthetically pleasing way.

I like aesthetics. I like show business too, so we decided to keep the theme going and go see one of the onboard productions.  It was called “I Got The Music,” and was basically a medley of all sorts of different pop songs. The singers and dancers were incredible, and we had cocktails as we watched.

We went out on the deck to enjoy the Sun (it was still up at 11:30PM when we got out of the show…gotta love the North!) and sea.  I really enjoyed walking the deck, so while my mom sat and smoked, I moseyed around, catching the sights from as many different vantage points as possible.

I wandered for quite a while, contemplating life. My ego may make more of myself than I am, but the horizon tells no lies–I am small, and will remain so. But I’m content in that fact, living in my small world with the people God has ordained to be in my life, new friends and old. And for all this smallness, I still get the infinite pleasure of exploring the vast Earth. This feeling will never leave, because in that moment I felt that this trip had broadened the horizons and emblazoned on my heart a new fervor to explore and experience the newness of what I had found. I walked up to the Lido Deck 15 and prepared myself a British tea with cream, the memory of the horizon still in my mind.

I grew tired and made my way back down to the stateroom, where I watched Four Weddings & A Funeral before drifting off to dreamland, knowing that on the other side of my closed eyelids, we were passing into Estonian waters.