14 September 2007
The last we heard from them was about 6 weeks ago. GLH sent his friend the train schedule from where they would be coming. His friend replied they would likely be on the train scheduled to arrive at 12:37 pm.
GLH is now back from the train station. He waited half an hour and there was no sign of them.
Me: You made certain to give them our address and telephone number, right?
GLH: Not sure. Probably.
Me: Probably? You aren't sure one way or another?
After looking it up.
GLH: I gave him our address and my cellphone number in December 2006. So he has it.
Me: Well, I hope he remembered to bring it!
The only contact information we know for certain they have is GLH's e-mail address.
Now, let's contrast this with a visit in two weeks that a friend of mine will be making...
As soon as she knew which flight she was taking, she e-mailed me the full itinerary. There have been many e-mails back and forth regarding plans and places to go while she is here. A couple of days before she comes I will contact her to verify the information and make certain nothing has changed. I will also provide her with our complete contact information and a map to the house. Just in case we do not connect at the airport and she needs to either call me or (worse case scenario) find her own way to our house.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is why men should not be put in charge of anything.
At least not GLH and his friend!
12 September 2007
Today I was sitting in the Quiet Car, doing a sudoku puzzle and just generally enjoying the silence. I was one of only three people in the compartment and the others were very quiet as well.
Another woman came into the Quiet Car. There was some noise as she settled herself into a seat. But then she took out a sandwich. That in and of itself is not normally an issue. But this sandwich was in a cellophane wrapper that made an astounding amount of noise. If she had just taken it out and eaten it on a napkin, it would not have been a problem. But she left it in the wrapper and just folded it down as she ate.
It took her 20 minutes to finish that [insert expletive] sandwich. About halfway through I realized I was actually glaring at her. I further realized I had the exact same expression on my face as I glared at her that the other two people had. (Not that the woman took any note, of course.)
And then I realized that it is happening.
I am becoming Swissified!
I wonder what will be the next step in the Swissification Process?
Staring at people in public? Reporting people's license plates to the police when I witness them speeding? Taking pleasure in paying more for something than it is worth?
09 September 2007
Before the first rehearsal I was extremely nervous. After all, my ability to understand spoken German is not great. And my ability to reply in German is really quite dismal. But it will never improve unless I force myself into situations where I have to use it.
Even so, I was horrified when I realized the entire rehearsal would be in Schweizer Deutsch! I couldn't understand the majority of what was being said. How could this possibly work?
Since the altos were seated on the opposite side of the room from the exit, I couldn't just slip outside and never return. Which is what I wanted to do. I had to wait for the end of the rehearsal before explaining in my broken German that I would not be able to be in the choir after all.
And I am glad I did, because the longer I sat there the more I realized that music is an international language -- and that language is Italian!
No, I don't speak Italian either. But I do speak music.
Allow me to explain...
I have been a singer since I was in elementary school. At 12 years old I started formal training and began to take lessons in classical voice and opera. I continued to study voice in college. After graduation, I participated in community choirs and small ensembles. I even continued with voice lessons until about 5 years ago.
All this means that I can read music quite well. Not only can I read the notes themselves, but all of the various marks that indicate volume, tone, expression and so on as well. And most of the notations are either symbols or written in Italian, regardless of what language you happen to speak.
So during the rehearsal when the director would explain what he wanted us to do, this is what I would hear:
Schweizer Deutsch Schweizer Deutsch crescendo Schweizer Deutsch forte Schweizer Deutsch and so on.
Combined with the hand direction being given, I was able to follow along with no difficulty whatsoever. The only issue I had is when the director would change to another piece and I would have no idea which one it was. But the woman next to me noticed I couldn't speak German and always made certain to point to where we were starting to make certain I didn't get lost.
In most ways, it felt just like every other choir I've ever been in. Except that the choir started exactly on time and not a single person was late. Although at the end the director ran over by about 5 minutes. After all, we were in the middle of a song so we may as well finish it. Several people pointedly looked at their watches and glared a bit. But the director just ignored them and finished on his own schedule.
Oh yeah, and it also feels very strange to sing Broadway Show Tunes in German.
08 September 2007
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"You'll see," came his reply.
After some misturns and a few swear words, GLH said "Ah ha!"
I looked up and saw:
HOOTERS! What in the world are we doing at HOOTERS?
Hooters opened earlier this year here in Zürich. I snorted a bit when I heard that, but having never been to a Hooters in the United States I put it out of my mind.
It seems, however, that GLH was having a yearning for some Buffalo Wings. Buffalo wings are in short supply 'round these here parts and Hooters is renowned for making good ones. Served by buxom young women, of course.
But GLH knew that if he told me where we were going, I would immediately shoot it down. So he snuck it up on me.
Since we were already there, I reluctantly agreed to go in.
GLH ordered his Buffalo Wings and I got some Mozzarella Sticks (my personal favorite greasy, American deep-fried appetizer.)
The wings were pretty good, even if they failed to come with a dipping sauce. And the mozzarella sticks were a very good approximation of what mozzarella sticks should be.
So we took a chance. We ordered a margarita. Just one to share in case it wasn't very good. As we have yet to order a good margarita anywhere in Europe and there are only so many outrageously expensive, bad cocktails we want to pay for. But since Hooters is an American sports bar and the wings and sticks were pretty good, we thought "maybe..."
We became a bit nervous when the waitress had never even heard of a margarita and immediately said "We don't have them here." When we showed her the menu with "Margarita" clearly listed, she was surprised and headed off for the bar.
So we watched. There was some conversation between the waitress and the bartender and puzzled expressions. Then they got some kind of a manual out from under the counter.
"Good," we thought, "if they just follow the directions it should turn out alright."
With concentration on their faces, the bartender and waitress carefully read the instructions and started to pull out bottles. They measured all the ingredients and poured them into a martini shaker. Unusual, but it should taste the same, right?
The contents were then poured into a martini glass that had been dipped into salt, placed on a tray and carried triumphantly over to the table.
It sat in the middle of the table while we studied it.
Then I carefully picked it up and took a sip. And nearly spewed it across the table. What we had was not so much a margarita as it was a room-temperature tequila martini fancied up with a splash of lemon juice and a lime. And by the way, instead of using the special margarita salt, they used regular table salt!
Apparently the instructions in the manual were not quite clear enough.
We doctored it up by mixing in quite a bit of water and two little packets of sugar. That made it drinkable.
However, our search for a good margarita in Europe must continue.
Although in retrospect, perhaps we should lower our expectations and just try to find an adequate margarita...
07 September 2007
Directly opposite our cabin balcony was Akershus Festning. Originally built by Hakon* Magnusson in the 13th century as a royal residence and stronghold, it was expanded into a Renaissance Castle by King Christian IV of Denmark. (Norway swapped back and forth between Denmark and Sweden for many centuries. It did not regain its independence until 1905.)
It was a sight to behold. Although it was slightly disconcerting to have cannons pointed directly at our ship!
It was just past 7:30 am when we began our walk through the town. The few people who were already out and about were either cruise ship passengers such as us or hurrying through the chilly morning air on their way to work.
We first stopped at the main transit center to purchase our day passes good on all trains, busses and ferries. At only 60 Norwegian kroner per person (about 7-8 Euros), it's a bargain!
We next walked towards the Royal Palace...
And caught the changing of the guard ritual. Which seems to consist of walking slowly, yet purposely, in a formation. One guy will then go chat with the guy already standing guard and then they change places. Riveting, eh? Which may explain why we were the only people watching it!
The ferry to Bygdoy Island, opposite the fjord from city center, starts running at 8:45 am. So we caught the first ferry to the island and walked up the hill to Vikingskipshuset (Viking Ship Museum.)
The museum features three full-sized Viking ships that were used for many years before becoming "Grave Ships." The ships were found buried with a person, treasures and all of the supplies they would need if making a long journey. It's actually quite a good exhibit and a "do not miss" attraction in Oslo.
A short walk from the Vikingskipshuset is the Norsk Folkemuseum, another "do not miss" attraction. It's a large open air museum with historic buildings from around Norway that we painstakingly dismantled and moved to this wooded location.The pride of the museum is the Gol Stave Church, built in the 12th century. It is a beauty to behold.
In all there are 153 buildings in the large museum, including the traditional buildings all from one village seen above. We loved the detail of the woodwork and the prairie grasses on the roofs!
Here is a close-up of one of the roofs...
The museum also includes traditional houses used by the Sami, the Nordic tribe near in the far north of Norway, Sweden and Finland best known for their reindeer. Nomads who follow the herds, their houses must be easy to put up, take down and move with them. I was astounded at how much they resemble the tepees used by the Plains Indians in the United States...
We were also amazed they had taken the time and effort to move rather enormous structures such as thisa apartment building dating back to 1920's Oslo...
I also noticed several of the employees dressed in traditional clothing walking about with these cool, woven baskets. I really, really wanted one, but couldn't find a place to buy them. If anyone knows where I could order one, please let me know!
Or if you happen to have instructions to make them! No, the instructions would not be for me. But I bet I could talk my mother, who does basket weaving, into making one for me! (I love you, Mom!)
Since it is a long sail from Oslo back to Copenhagen, the ship departed at 2:00 pm. As we sailed away, we also caught a glimpse of Holmenkollen. There has been a ski jump on that hill since 1892. But that particular ski jump was built for the 1952 Winter Olympics.
Good-bye, Oslo! We will return one day!
06 September 2007
Since we'd had very early mornings the previous days, we took our time and left the ship at about 9:30 am.
At the port is a very long line of taxi drivers. For around 100 Euros you can arrange for a day long tour with one of the drivers. They will take you wherever you want to go and deliver you back to the ship. Many of them will also provide a bit of commentary, depending upon their inclination.
By the time we got out there, all of the English speaking drivers were already gone. They had been claimed by the early birds. Our driver spoke only Polish. We tried a bit of German and French, just in case. But no go.
But no matter. We had a Michelin Guide to Poland with the attractions listed in English, but also with the Polish names and spellings. We simply pointed at the Polish name of where we wanted to go and off we went. Although occasionally the driver would decide to take a side jaunt to show us something he felt to be vital, such as the church in nearby Oliwa where Lech Walesa still attends services.
At least, I think that's what it was. I cannot be absolutely certain as I only think I may have understood a few words.
For it would be wrong to assume that our driver limited his commentary simply because we spoke not a word of Polish and he spoke nothing but. No indeed, he chattered away as we drove about. Oddly enough I was often able to figure out kinda what he was saying. GLH suspected I had been holding out on him and accused me of secretly speaking Polish. But enough words were similar that I could guess. For instance, at one stage the driver motioned to the terrible traffic jam with much throwing of his hands into the air. I managed to catch a word that sounded something like "fussball" and another word that sounded vaguely like "Romania."
So I translated to GLH: The driver apologizes for the bad traffic. It is because there is a soccer game with Romania today.
Each time something like this would happen, the driver would nod emphatically and smile at me in the rearview mirror. I think we might have bonded. GLH would just stare at both of us and shake his head.
So in this manner we made our way to Gdansk.
Gdansk was founded in 997 and is an important port city in Poland. Approximately 90% of the city was destroyed during World War II. Originally they had thought to leave it as a memorial to the many who died. But instead they rebuilt it. In fact, the buildings are closer to what they were originally since they used the originally plans and pictures and did not include the various additions and upgrades added in the later years before the war.
As we drove into the city, we drove past the shipyard made famous by Lech Walesa and the birth site of the Solidarity Movement. We know this because the driver chattered and pointed at it. Plus we saw the enormous Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers...
Gdansk is best known for the enormous port crane. Built in the 14th century, it has two huge cog wheels inside. Up to 20 men would walk within the wheels (hamster-wheel style) to lift the loads up and down.
We also saw St. Mary's Church, the largest brick church in the world. At least that's what the Michelin guide claims. And I cannot say I've seen one larger.
After a "walk-about" through the town we stopped at a spot on the main square for lunch. Quite possibly the worst food we have ever had! Cannot remember the name of the place, but the sign had a large bear on it. If ever in Gdansk, avoid this place.
We then headed back to the parking lot where we had left our driver. He shooed away his fellow taxi-driving friends, gave us a big grin and took us back to our ship.
All in all, a pretty good day with the exception of the lunch.
The town was greeted with "ohhs and ahhs" from most of the other passengers. Because although the cruise line is owned by a company based in the UK and it was sailing through Europe, the vast majority of passengers were from the United States with the second largest group coming from Japan. The daily menus and schedule of events were even printed in both English and Japanese.
Medieval European walled cities are not really part of the American or Asian experience. Obviously! And Tallinn is a very nicely preserved, beautiful city with the charming cobbled streets, ambling walkways and beautiful timbered houses.
But, as the old saying goes, you "cannot swing a dead cat by the tail" without hitting a Medieval walled city in Europe. Frankly, once you see one, you've pretty much seen them all. And after 9 months of living and traveling in Europe, we have seen many. (Oh dear, have I become a bit jaded?)
But outside of the old city walls is something that truly is uniquely Estonian. The Song Festival Grounds...
The Estonian Song Festival is held here every 5 years. (It will next be held in the summer of 2009.) As many as 30,000 singers can fit on the stage you see with more than 100,000 spectators in the open air seating area.
Still not impressed?
Let me tell you the "truly special" part. When our tour guide began to speak about the Song Festival, a smile lit her face and she stood a little taller. She had an assistant with her who was a tour guide in training. Previous to this she had been kind of slouching along, obviously bored. But she also stood very tall while the guide spoke about the Song Festival and pride shown from her eyes.
The Song Festival is special because of how important it obviously is to the Estonians.
For most of the preceding centuries, Estonia has been a land of serfs. Essentially slaves to foreign masters. They have been controlled by the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians. Until 1989 they were part of the Soviet Union. Their culture was marginalized. They were made to feel worthless.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the Estonian Awakening Movement began. Estonian artists began to preserve and perform the traditional stories, music and dances. And a pride of self slowly began to form.
In 1869 the first Estonian Song Festival took place in Tartu, Estonia. The festival was held every five years. In 1896, it was moved to Tallinn and has remained there to this day. The ruling class of the country, by this stage either the Germans, the Russians or the Soviets, forced them to include some foreign songs. But ultimately the Song Festival has always been about Estonian Pride.
Our tour guide nearly had tears in her eyes when she explained that many of the older Estonians say that during the Soviet years, the only thing that kept them going was the Festival. Each Festival gave them the strength to go for five more years under Soviet rule.
The tour guide further explained that many people believe that it was the strength the Estonians gathered from the Song Festival that allowed them to declare their independence from the Soviet Union in 1989.
So the grounds may not look like much, but they are powerful indeed. Here they are filled with people during the last Festival. (Photo borrowed from the Laulupidu website, the official website of the Song Festival.)