Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hoy Es Un Regalo!

Ayer se fue, historia,

Manana es un misterio

Hoy es un regalo!

Yesterday has gone, history,

Tomorrow is a mystery

Today is a gift!

I was given this saying by our dinner companions from New York City as a bit of wisdom from their mother country, Puerto Rico. They were two retired teacher/counselors also traveling on the Star Princess on our Baltic Cruise. We also made some fascinating friends in Mary and Betty from Oahu, Hawaii. Mary is a free-lance forensic pathologist and Betty ran a trucking business. Great conversationalists and dinner companions.

What follows here are highlights, fond memories and gifts from our recent 22 days abroad. Yes, there were and always are challenges and frustrations with transatlantic travel but there was such a wealth of experiences that they will last a life time. These are what I'd like to remember and share.

Of course, it would've been no fun without Betty, my love, my wife and companion now for almost 45 years. The first day in Copenhagen we just happened to find a private boat with her name on the life appropriate for the theme of this my last post on this blog. We celebrated alittle early with a rare and exquisite alexandrite pendant we found duty free on board ship. We had been looking for just the right one (birthstone) for years. One in a million have a real one from Russia. We also found a drawing of a symbol of our love in an airplane magazine. Brett, our jeweler son, is going to make it for us to share from the gold of my wedding ring I had to cut off.

So this is what we did. We greeted each day as a gift and had the best time seeing places we had always wanted to see and doing fun things and sharing our mutual joy of finally experiencing Sweden and its beautiful countryside of forests and friendly people. We had to miss Gdynia, Poland (Gdansk) because it was so stormy the ship couldn't risk docking. No matter, we had another day on board ship with lots of food and entertainment. We enjoyed cappucinos from our last cruise and this one had a card you could buy that would get you those specialty coffee drinks at a discount. We bought two "Java Jake" cards and just about used them up. We found that their idea of a cappucino was more like a latte. So we ordered double espressos and had them add spray cream to the top. Delicious. Our main barista was Olga from the Ukraine. She was so sweet and barely spoke or understood our jokes in English. She spoke with her eyes though and was so very friendly. The Troika Dancer from St. Petersburg, Russia were invited onboard for one performance they were also fabulous especially in their nightclub costumes looking like snowflakes. They were hard to capture on film. So were so many of my attempts at pictures in the Hermitage and the Gold Room. We had an excellent guide who had just graduated from the University there majoring in Cultural History. I hope she finds a job.

One thing we did not share was my tour of backstage on the ship. It was fascinating to me and not of interest to Betty. I had lots of questions for the Stage/Production Manager. It is all state of the art and no one pulls a machines to within 1/16 th of an inch. The sound and light designs and special effects (pyro too) were out of this world. Costumes and makeup are the responsibility of each member of the cast. (few props)

Our time in Stockholm was too brief. We saw the Vasa Ship, 95% preserved and brought up from the harbor. It wasn't ready last time Betty was there. It was too dark to get any really good pix in that huge building. They only brought up one tiny gold ring in all that wreckage. It is a very large, cosmopolitan city of several islands and we felt frustrated with so little time there. Betty's mother was born there but we didn't know where or the names to look up.

Helsinki was a pleasant surprise. We visited a chuch hewn out of solid granite and went to a quaint country home for traditional afternoon coffee and pastries. Got some wonderful picture there. i.e. their sauna, antiques, a nature hike and an old mariner's church and graveyard surrounded by bright yellow fields of rape seed. (brighter than mustard) They had my favorite, rhubarb pie. We all loved it and felt so at home in their quaint, antiquiy home. They take tour buses twice a week.

In the ancient village part of Tallinn, Estonia we were too hasty and had our first bad cup of coffee. (the ship's buffet coffee wasn't too good either) They were just opening the town square where all the vendors dress in old fashion costumes and sell all kinds of local craft items. We did find a little covered wagon with a large kettle that made (not kettle corn) but warm almonds layered with all kinds of secret spices (cinnamon and clove mainly) Delicious snack. Fascinating walking tour with many quaint shops and stalls.
In St. Petersburg, we took the short excursion the first day and didn't enter any famous churches with the multicolored spiral cupolas. We saw children begging around the tour buses in the shade of the gold leaf overlayed towers. It was depressing. We were warned many times by our guides to watch out for pickpockets and the "distraction commotions". The next day was gloriously spent at the apex of art collections, The Hermitage. It is massive in 4 or 5 buildings that are different colors and well kept.(as are their Arts buildings i.e. Opera, Ballet etc.) The gold room had a Russian-speaking guide who didn't think our English-speaking guide was giving the full translation and chastized her. English phrasing is much shorter and clipped compared to Russian phrasing. Many of the painting were too dark to photo but the statuary was fantastic as was the inlaid, parkayed flooring and mosaic ceilings (matching) and the GOLD Chandeliers.
It was very crowded and confusing at times. The guide moved quickly from room to room without warning or gesture. Oh well...
In Oslo, Norway (and Stockholm) the harbor entrance is fjord-like and full of little islands. Very picturesque. We went to the Viking Ship building and I think I enjoyed them more than my wife. Then to their giant ski jump that is scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt. Hollemkollen was the name I think. It gained fame in the '52 Olympics I think. Spectacular in size alone but not a real treat for Betty. By the way, it has a small lake/pond at the bottom; frozen over in winter of course. The absolute hit was the Statue Garden of Vigland. What a tour-de-force in sculpture. Took many a pix and the flowers above are from their gardens there. The statues look rough but are actually very smooth and so true-to-life...especially the "mad little kid" one.

The best meal on board ship for me was the twin lobsters and the Flaming Baked Alaska Tradition with the waiters parading. Francisco and Victor were the best we've had. Javier, our room attendant was very friendly but we had to remind and wait for some things our neighbors already had. We gave everyone an excellent review and tipped them all as already deducted from our ship's account. One particularly funny/exasperating incident was in the ship's library with Adrian, from Poland. I had a thumb nail that was catching on everything and I just had to clip it right there and then. Adrian was on me like a "heat-seeking missle". I had the clipping in my hand when he came over and said, "We have a spa up on deck 15 for that." Yeah right, I'm going to get on the elevator and go up 10 decks/floors for one snaggle nail?
Sorry, this was not a gift we enjoyed from Adrian, so we left the ship's library. I did enjoy the daily quizzes posted in the game room next to the library though. Had to stump everyone at breakfast in my exasperatingly teacherish way.

We disembarked early without a hitch and our luggage was waiting for us at the airport where we were to pick up our Volvo stationwagon for our 8-Day tour of the back roads of Sweden. All of our excursions were well managed by the ship's personnel. This was our last with the airport. We barely fit in the car. It was very tight for the ladies in the backseat. By the time they bought all their souvenirs, seven days later, they had to hold some in their laps almost. It was oh so jolly and fun with all the crazy signs and maps to read. I was helping with the navigating but the trip was well planned. Two new words of many that we chuckled over were "infart" and "utfart" which were little sign near drive throughs, fast food, gas stations. I think they meant "fast in" and "fast out". In Copenhagen, near the lifting bridge they had a sign "pissor" for the a public restroom of the standing variety. The other one their had an attendant with a stall key that expected the equivolent of 10cents. It was clean. In fact, very little grafetti could be seen in any of the major cities, not like Rome etc.

On the way to our first night in the Swedish countryside was a small village stop in Venga. Here Patti was looking for her father's church and where in grew up. We got lucky and found a neighbor lady out picking strawberries (yordgubba) in the wooded areas nearby the old church yard. Roy speaks enough Swedish (8 yr. old learned) that he was able to communicate. She was very helpful and was able to put us in touch with the church caretaker, who let us in. This is an ancient, but active Luthern church. No records there but then just 300m away was a little "stuga" with a little old lady who had all the town's records on micro fische. She spoke no English. Most all younger Swedes do. Patti was in tears of joy because she found all the records and family. We looked but found no graves in the neat, well-kept church graveyard.

By 3PM. we made our first Inn, Stufvenas Gastgifveri (some missing omlauts). It was built in the 16th century but mondernized and building a big spa in the back. I was on a long dirt road through heavily wooded forests of mixed evergrees and birch. So lush with moss and fern undergrowth. On our walk to the nearby lake we almost stepped on a big black slug with a yellow dot on its end. Must've been 3-4 inches long. We discovered several others on the way. The girls loved them. They move so slow no wonder they are hermaphydytes. In the hallway to our rooms were two stuffed snowy ferrits. We had already noticed the quietness of the forests on our squirrels, very few bird's chirps. The owner said that they had had a heatwave in May that killed off wildlife, mosquitos and winds that felled many a tree in spots. We continued to notice this on our long road trip. The rooms were comfortable, gourmet evening meal was delicious but expensive. A former elite cruise line chef and his girl friend ran the place. Got some lovely pix.

Next stop was in the little village of Gransholm and was called, in it's hayday the Villa Gransholm - an old victorian, white, two-story with manicured lawns. It was near the glass-blowing district and Orefors which was our goal for the next day. I was the first to go in and register and the place was empty. There was a note on the desk to make ourselves at home and our room keys for upstairs, uniquely decorated rooms. The owner was off with their new boat we found out. I toured the village the next morning and found the pond, dam and roaring stream near the only business of the orginal owner of the Villa, a paper factory (all the trees). Now it is a AC fan factory that ships all over the world. The girls loved the fact that we were alone in the monstrous manor with old time, black and white albums and setees. We found out that the kitchen was closed for "dinner" but would serve the typical Swedish breakfast buffet at 8AM. We found other food in a nearby town that night. Very quaint and full of history, the whole area. Out in the yard, fenced in, I found some "blonde, furry ducks" We jokingly called them "Swedish Ducks" along with the blonde cows we had seen earlier on the way. The owner said they belonged to her three girls and were kept to keep the snails and slugs down. I found another slug on the front steps and fed it to them. Lots of pix again. We also had "egg-rurra" for breakfast. My mom used to make it, runny, scrambled eggs. I was the only one who liked them. We had too many eggs during the trip, on board ship and countryside. I'm sure my cholesterol is way up.

The next half day or so was spent at the famous glass factories of Orefors and Kosta Boda. The ladies went wild. We took the tour, fascinating and had "elva coffee" (11AM coffee at the Crystal Cafe Coffe Bar. Very sparkly and stunningly modern in design. Yummy pastries and a cute, Swedish, blond barista. Betty got some outlet type bowls and Patti found her leaded crystal girl looking at the stars, a close out and a bargain. Wow! On the way to Orebro, our next stop (a major city) we saw the IKEA headquarters and distribution center. Roy wouldn't stop, we were on course/target for his boyhood haunts in Orebro and his cousin's country, summer home in Asbro near the lake. A real challenge finding the place through backroads etc. but finally, hugs and lots of memories with Monica and Ulf. She's a retired nurse and he's a retired Director of Social Service on the State. (big in Sweden's Social Serviced economy where there are 50%+ taxes for these services) They had quite a lovely, well kept yard and three little "bedroom stugas" on their property, all red and white. Satellites for their kids and grandkids to visit. They had an outdoor shower and a "chemical toilette" because they were too close to the lake for other kinds of sewage. Dense underbrush surrounded their yard where they go to pick blueberries (we had them, yum) raspberries and new potato plants. They pulled some up for out evening meal at their city flat over looking the local Orebro river (? name) They were consummate hosts and took us on the tours, i.e. The Swampen a giant, mushroom-shaped water tower. Betty and Roy had taken pictures there back in 1960 on her original trip. What a beautiful city. We stay in a downtown hotel within walking distance to their flat. Our room was right over a sidewalk pub and it was Friday night. The next morning I insisted on a room move to one overlooking the inner court. It had a balcony, and much quieter for the second night. Every three days or so I had to do my underware laundry and so I hung it our on the balcony. On our final night there we ate at an Argentine beef place owned by a Turkish man. Excellent shrimp for us and good conversation. We also toured the Orebro Castle in the center of town. They had college students doing a dramatic, in character, tour of the olde time life there. I enjoyed it but it was not all that informative, they never "broke character" once, kitchen maids, mad queens, mayors and butlers. What a kick!

We had to go next to the state of Dalarnas (north) and the town where they make the little red and blue horses, chickens and pigs out of whittled, painted(rosemalled) soft pine. We were allowed to personally lead our own tour of the "factory" and I joked with the finger-bandaged, old whittler because I had a bandage on my finger too. Again, the girls went wild and bought all kinds of souvenirs and decorative items. Betty has decorated our home in Sun Lakes with many of these items, especially at Christmas time. On the day going to this area we visited Carl Larsson's home. This was a dream come true for Betty who has collected his paintings etc. and loves his technique, (the Swedish Monet) His home is much smaller than we expected but just packed with his and his wife's artwork, tapestries, sculptures and interior designs. The grounds around the home are immense and very picturesque. No wonder he was so inspired to paint. We saw many of the actural settings, picnic areas he used. Even I bought some things at their small gift shop. Again, many pix. We stayed for two nights at our best place, the Historic Klockargarden Hotell. We had our own three-room flat in our own separate stugga. Patti and Roy had the upstairs. It was very nice with a double jacuzzi tub that we used both nights. This was especially fun after our gourmet dinner, too expensive wine and dessert at the main house. I saw dried an dead midsummer/maypoles but no clocks. They had some ancient wooden log homes on display and some old car collections including a mint condition, converitble monza. (I had a monza in '63) We had dinner the next night at cheaper town restaurant highly recommended called the Bosporan. It was a "Pizza-Kabab" place but not all that fast food. There are the above kinds of places all over, in each town run by middle easterns. Quite popular I guess. The pizza was delicious and thin crust. I pulled it apart like in Rome. Proper ettiquette in Sweden, I guess, is to use fork and knife in reversed (American) hands. I wasn't too good at that. Met an interesting couple and their mother from Seattle and Irvine at the next table. We split the pizza (margarite), ten kroner charge for the split and a carlsburg. Betty wanted a glass of water, 10 kroner please, no ice. no service, no tip. On the wall were pictures of the blue mosque and minarets but all the service personel were Swedish. Lovely big Swedish families getting together with twins(?) maybe, they all look so cute toe headed and they sound so sweet. We were used to only our parents and grandparents speaking Swedish and it sounds so neat to hear kids doing it.
Now on our way back south and the big bridge/tunnel crossing to Copenhagen, our last stop was at an imposing, 13th Century Convent called Vadstena Klosterhotel. It had a very scenic setting on the 2nd largest lake in Sweden, Lake Vetdnern(?) very long and wide. The monestary was very austere and we felt like monks climbing the two sets of well-worn steps to our tiny rooms. It has a blue plaque showing a 4-star rating for Historic Hotels in Sweden, but it was not as good as all the other 3-star ones. Must be the settting. We tried to snack at the terrace but a freak wind burst crashed an umbrella on Roy and he got some more korv (sausage) when his plate smashed and the gross-looking grackle crows were on it. The nearby konditorri was somewhat better with prettier waitresses but it was grossly over priced. We walked along the lake and Roy thoroughly checked out the marina. The girls and I check the village shops and pedestrian traffic mixed with lost tourist cars. We found our konditorri for the A.M. departure and Betty's birthday treat. It was a long night, as were most, with no setting sun or darkness until 11pm or midnight and no darkening shades in the convent rooms. I put up a blanket and then no air in a very humid climate. Betty had her worst night with her fever finally breaking and relief finally from the cold/flu she had been suffering from the past two days. Perfect for her birthday drive to Molmo and Copenhagen next. By now the car was jam-packed with gifts and the ladies could hardly move in the back seat.
We stopped for gas at a place that had a Mickey D's, a Burger King and a Max (Sweden's equivolent) Mac Donald's was crowded and smelly, there was a big restroom line at B.K. so we took our chances at MAX. Wow! So clean and neatly designed including the restrooms. Betty proclaimed this her Birthday Lunch and wanted a veggie burger with pineapple. Nope. So she had a fish (philsh) burger with pineapple. I ordered a veggie and an aloha burger w/ pineapple and then took the slice of pineapple and put it on the veggie patty. Roy took the other patty. Betty was happy and we had alot of fun. Max rules!
We hit the bridge earlier than expected and I video taped for Roy. Quite a montrous bridge and tunnel and I guess they are planning another where the ferry is. In Copenhagen (Kopenhaven) we had fun searching in the city traffic and one-way streets for H.C. Anderson Blvd. #9 The Alexandra Hotel. We finally found it by risking life and limb and parking/unloading in the designated, very busy bike lanes (some near crashes) Again, we were located on the second floor, rm. 222 right above the corner traffic of a very busy intersections. I immediately went and complained and got us moved to the 4th floor and down the way. It was next to the typical European caged elevators you find in these turn-of-the-century hotels. It was alot less noisy with double windows we left closed and a little electric fan, our first, that we adored. We were two blocks from Tivoli Gardens (planned) and so we spent the early evening of Betty's Birthday having a share lite Carlberg at Cafe Ultimo next to the lake, and the weeping willows. A big, brass Danish, redcoated band marched by right at 7PM. Lots of pix again. The place had changed quite a bit since Betty had been there and seen Punch and Judy and the Flea Circus. We were very tired so we went to crash knowing we had an early start (5:45AM) to finish reorganizing our luggage for the airplane's required limits. We had gotten an extra sports duffel at an outlet along the way for only 100 kroner ($15). We were in good shape weight wise.
With only two mistakes, loading near a trash truck pickup and missing a airport (little airplane sign) turn while getting a fill up we returned our rental to the 4th floor of the rental car garage and put all our luggage on three carts. (By the way, in Europe they are free, at Ontario they are $3.) We then had some time for a breakfast snack after our Duty Free stop and refund to our credit card of about $65. in tax. Then we hit the Delta 767 and Patti and Roy used their saved up 90,000 pts. each to ride "business class" lucky ducks while we were sardined with loud children nearby. We opted not for out vegetarian meals but pasta. Our next stop in Atlanta was delayed due to rerouting and storms nearby. We were lucky and got out, Patti and Roy were stuck all night in the airport in line with 300 others trying to get to Wisconsin or Michigan. They had their grandsons to pick up in Greenbay and barely made it I guess after a sleepless night. What they do for those kids!
SuperShuttle was no where to be found at the Ontario Island of Taxis so we called and complained. They came again about a half hour late and we were alone in a large van. It had electrical problems nearing Banning but we made it by 10PM on at day that started in Copenhagen at 5:45AM their time (add 9 hours) So we were zonked again but happy to be home and in our wonderfully soft bed. Now, 3 days later, we are still feeling the effects of jet lag i.e. getting sleepy at 3PM and waking up at 3AM. Oh well, we did it and it was WUNDERBAR!
I'm sure there are many more things I'll remember later and cherish. We loved it and felt it was a "gift" of a lifetime. We got to know each other even better and realize how much we love each other and need each other as we grow older together. We are quite a team, a couple, and true buddies. We'll travel again, but only to Alaska, Canada or Hawaii. No long flights and to a world that is becoming increasingly anti -American.
I'm now ending this blog. It has been a great exercise for me and I've truly enjoyed doing it. It has helped me bring back memories and relate them to my present retired life. It has been a "life preserver" for me and, I hope, a record of my thoughts and ideas up to now. It helped me with my personal "demons" which are all but licked I think.
I'm going to start a new phase of my life, substitute teaching in classes of my choice two to 4 days a week as long as I feel healthy about it. I can only earn so much and still draw my teacher's retirement. I'm also renewing my Real Estate License even though it is not with a Broker. Who knows, I may do that again also. Blogging is a thing of the past now...unless...I get tempted to do it anonymously...just for fun. Who knows?
So I'll end this endeavor as I began it:
"El que da,
El que ensene,
"He who gives,
He who teaches,
Keep on Bobbin'