Life at Sea

We are getting closer to home; ship staff want our departure information, clocks are spinning backwards at a dizzying speed and the ship is speeding along at 18 knots.  We are scheduled to arrive in NYC on time Saturday. Here’s how I spent my Sunday.

It’s a good time to tell you about our shipmates, but please keep in mind that generalities are tough when three different groups of passengers have thoroughly mingled.

The original group of 600 departed NYC after numerous cruise trips had been cancelled due to COVID: the “COVID pause.” Many of these 600 were anxious and impatient to get back to sea, booking additional cruises this year to feed that hunger despite the continued danger of COVID.   About 300 of these original travelers were replaced in Reykjavík by equally anxious “experience-seekers” who kayaked, hiked, and/or dined in cool places during our brief stops. Most of that 300 left the ship in Le Havre, too impatient to handle all the upcoming sea days.

The 300 or so who boarded in La Havre included some who had been touring Europe for weeks on their own, others whose primary interest was just being on the ship, and some who were using credits from previous trips or adding trips for their loyalty rewards. 

Most of these travelers are frequent travelers with 40 or more cruises under their belt.  Conversations typically start with “Where have you been before?”  Passengers arrive and mostly stay in couples (friends, partners, grandparent/grandchild). Most are repeat cruisers (as in 40 or more cruises under their belts.) We didn’t try to socialize at first; telling our COVID story wasn’t good conversation when COVID was roaring through the ship, and Bob’s cough has been disruptive until recently. We learned that in this COVID time, most socialization is on buses or in small-group ship activities. In the dining rooms, tables of four or six are the exception; large tables remain empty while 2-person tables fill quickly.

A few of the stories we’ve heard are just plain sad: “My husband and I were planning this trip together. He died of COVID, and I decided to come anyway.” “My mother just died; we had planned to come together. My family said I should come to honor her.” “I was asked to accompany a 90+ year old; he bought a 2-year suite ticket for us and died on the ship after just a few months.  I am finishing the trip.” Some passengers have portable electric wheelchairs, many have canes, there are both deaf and blind passengers on board and some who are clearly demented.

Oceania Insignia has a laundry room, used by all who don’t get free laundry with their upgraded room choice.  Always busy, the laundry room is the source of great gossip. “Two men got into a fight on an earlier cruise about whose turn for the dryer was next and were subsequently disembarked from the ship.”  “There were 30 or 40 or 50 or maybe 100 COVID cases earlier in the cruise.” “There is no COVID on board now.” None of that may be true.

Dress, except at dinner, is more like COVID comfort than Country Club casual: shorts, t-shirts, sandals. Folk “dress” for the dining room and specialty restaurants with slacks, shirts and shoes and occasional jackets or fancy shawls and tops. Hardly any jewelry.

Maybe tomorrow, we can touch on food.  Or maybe I’ll just read another mystery on the deck….As I finish this blog, a diversion from my original “aging” blog, do let me know if you have questions. Once home, this will all be in the past.

Lunch on the outdoor buffet restaurant as we left Lisbon. It was a beautiful day.

Lisbon: We hardly knew you

Sadly, our visit with Lisbon didn’t give us opportunity to fall in love with it. Our ship was in Lisbon only from 7 until 2:30; traffic, crowds were terrible; and our tour guide was adamant that we visit the iconic sights. I did enjoy the Lisbon sights which reminded me of our trip to Brazil more than ten years ago; I will share the iconic sights with you (briefly) and the reminders of Brazil.

Brazil taught us to say “Obrigada” for “Thank you”, to really see the incredible tiled walkways, and to laugh at the many jokes about the huge Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janerio. (In Argentina, the snarky joke is that Christ will raise his arms when the Brazilians go to work. Click on the link for more of the Brazilian jokes.) The tile work is laid down by workers, piece by piece, and repaired regularly. Here are some examples:

We saw very little of the tilework on buildings, in contrast to the amount in Porto City. Lisbon experienced earthquake, tsunami and fire in the mid-18th Century, and much of their early architecture (including 150 churches) was lost. Our lecturer also noted that Porto City was more mercantile and less royal than Lisbon, and that merchants were more likely to flaunt their wealth with tilework on their homes.

It seems that a Portuguese priest visited Brazil and decided Portugal should have its own Christ the Redeemer, for which he then raised the money. Sitting across the Tagus River, and beside a bridge strangely similar (and locally called) the Golden Gate bridge, here are some photos of Lisbon’s Christ the Redeemer:

Cranes and construction, as in Port City, were everywhere. Again, hotels are replacing banks and transportation is being adjusted to better route tourists to the iconic sites. Unfortunately, another reminder of Brazil were the high-pressure sales tactics of numerous street vendors and the warnings of pickpockets. There was a visible police presence in those crowded areas.

Upon our return to the ship, the Captain announced that Lisbon had been our last port. The planned trip to the Azores would have brought us directly into the path of Hurricane Danielle. Onward to NYC! The sea is beautiful, the sun is bright, and my deck awaits….

Porto City, Portugal – One of tomorrow’s top ten cities?

It would be sooo easy to write the marketing copy for Porto City (as the locals call Oporto). First, I must acknowledge that I know nothing about Portuguese economy or politics…but all of the ingredients for a favored tourist spot are already in place:

Great historical attractions: Forts in beachfront settings, the well-known tiled homes and churches (and lesser known tiled interiors in public buildings).

Modern architecture and street art.


Quirkiness.  What other European town has both a bookstore where one must stand in a very long line to get entry tickets and also a 16th century jail graced with a huge statue of a favored author holding his nude mistress?  (It seems that JK Rowling did some writing in the bookshop and it’s been mentioned in guidebooks as a “must see.” The statues portray a couple who served time in the jail for adultery: he on the nicer third floor; she relegated to the less nice 2nd floor.

Stunning beaches.

I love this photo, so you are seeing it twice. This time, notice the beautiful wide public beach.

Of course, there are a lot of tourists taking pictures already….

Looks like a tourist to me!

Porto City is famous as the home of Port Wine, almost an afterthought for this marketing list.  Given that red wines give me instant migraines, we didn’t even pursue a sip. The story we were told about the development of Port by a British fellow (who fell off his boat after a Port Party on his estate and drowned because he had a money belt filled with gold. Seriously….) is just one example of a longstanding bond between the UK and Portugal.  Clearly, the UK is heavily invested in Portugal still. 

Tomorrow, Lisbon and Sunday (Sept 4) the Azores.  Then it’s due West for five 25=hour days to NYC.  We should be totally disoriented to time and place as we leave the ship on Saturday the 10th and grab the train home.

Ferrol, Spain – A break before the final push        

I chose not to visit this medium-size Spanish town, whose primary tourist attraction is its naval base, huge shipyard and proximity to the Camino de Santiago walk.  Instead, I enjoyed total solitude on our sunlit deck, listening to gulls and watching small single-person rowboats quietly fishing for squid. Bob checked out the shipyard, and was suitably impressed with the 600-foot drydock and the sad story that joining the EU resulted in the closure of that shipbuilding business and the subsequent layoff of 40,000 workers.  The town is struggling to become a tourist destination, but it’s not there yet. 

Ferrol, Spain: calm, peaceful despite being a naval base and armory

We are indeed in the final week of our cruise, more or less. I am starting to think about whether we need to do laundry again, and about ground transportation in NYC from the pier to the train station. I worry a bit about the insurance forms and the medical follow-ups but mostly I am still here and enjoying. I do check email, so we do know that the willow oak for the area behind our cottage has been purchased (thanks Janet, Beth and Kathleen!), that COVID is back in the Health Center, that the laundry fire caused consternation and inconvenience but no major problems. None of that seems urgent or even nearby. We might tire of this floating full-service window to the world after a while, but we aren’t homesick yet.

Le Havre: a UNESCO Heritage Site?

Le Havre is the port via which most cruise ships access Normandy, France. As we arrived, it looked functional and unappealing. I didn’t even take a picture, which would have shown cranes for lifting cargo, huge gas storage tanks, and a refinery. The city was faintly visible from the upper decks, but the buildings appeared to be concrete, commercial, and without color or charm.

Boy, was I surprised to hear our guide, a resident of Le Havre, describe her home as a UNESCO heritage site! She gave a bit of history: Allied bombers during WWII had virtually destroyed the town–a German base, leaving 5000 dead and 87,000 homeless. (One of the disturbing aspects of visiting WWII sites in Germany and France are the reminders of the devastation wrought by our skilled military. It brings home the human cost of war…) After the war, those 87,000 folk wanted desperately to come home, and start their lives in the ruined town. An architect, Auguste Perret, was hired to design and build an entirely new city upon the ruins of the old. In 2005, the city was designated as a UNESCO Heritage site.

Perret used reinforced concrete for speed and efficiency. His plan focused the city on the sea, with a Catholic church greeting a center piece of welcome to sailors and a memorial to those who died. Here are some photos from our ship, which I shot as we departed:

There are lessons here: colorless may not be drab; sometimes a closer look is needed to appreciate the details; not all UNESCO Heritage Sites are medieval.

I asked two of our shipmates, who had gone to the city market in Le Havre, if they found the city attractive. Both had seen it as functional, but unattractive. What do you think?

Oops! Almost forgot the one element of the city I found totally charming: Street art. For one of its anniversaries, the city invited sculptures. The sculpture so charmed the City Council that they have kept it. Can you guess what it is made of? I love it simply for its color in this otherwise very pale city…

Le Havre waterfront; take a close look at the colorful arch on the right (made of cargo containers, of course!)

We did Paris!

Sunday, virtually no traffic, a warm sunny day….almost 3 hours of driving to get there, and another three back…but we had a good four hours of seeing the sights. Again, click for a larger picture. I don’t think most need captions…

We people watched while eating in an outdoor cafe on Champs Elysees. Bob took about 200 pictures, and thought he was in paradise. As we arrived in the city (10:00am or so), folk were lining up to get into the stores (why?); as we left around 2:00, the crowds and clouds were rolling in. Those clouds brought waves and swells for the evening. More are promised for tonight, and our captain is leaving France early for a sea day tomorrow. Bob is currently at Mont St. Michel; I am resting my feet and enjoying the solitude (though I would enjoy it more if our balcony furniture weren’t tied down). I’ll never be a Francophile, but the Paris trip was definitely a success.

Another post about Le Havre will follow….

With apologies to Ghent, Belgium

Today’s trip to Ghent, Belgium totally changed my disinterest in “yet another Hanseatic League city.” These buildings, though clearly similar to ones we saw in Riga, Latvia and Lubeck, Germany in our previous trip and Nyhavn in Copenhagen, were built in dverse styles in different centuries—and had an unmistakable charm all their own. Sorry, Ghent, for dismissing you so casually.

From the bridge over one of the canals we traversed in Ghent.

The trip began and ended with some hiccups: to start with, the tour guide repeatedly insisted that Brugges (just down the road from Ghent) had lost its eminence with the discovery of America by Columbus, and by the anti-industrial posture of the Catholic Church. The larger ships of Columbus-era replaced the smaller canal boats used to transport goods. Just too glib and over-simplified for me to swallow.

It turns out that the guide lives in central Brugges, overrun (she said) with tourists who consider it Disneyland. Her only nearby restaurants serve pizza and fries; grocery stores have been replaced with souvenir shops. Brugge’s economy (and hers) is totally dependent upon those dreaded tourists, the good and the bad of the tourist economy. But let me show you pictures of Ghent; just don’t expect any historical detail: (By the way, I haven’t mentioned this before, but you can click on the picture to enlarge it…)

We ate a quick lunch at a streetside cafe with this view.

We arrived at Zeebrugges port, which our guide said is now secondary to Antwerp and mostly handles cars. This very busy cargo ship port is surrounded by tight security and razor wire to ensure that “no transnationals” attempt to stow away to the UK where “IDs are not required for jobs.” Our crew members were not allowed to leave the ship, for fear that they too would depart for the UK, or become involved in helping some one else. We were told to carry our passport throughout the day. Sadly, a passenger had her passport and credit card stolen, which meant she was not allowed to continue the cruise. With her luggage, she was disembarked to Brussels, entrusted to a dock agent and left desperately hoping that the US Embassy can provide a replacement passport in time for her flight home from Le Havre tomorrow. Continuing the plight of large urban areas, two couples missed the departure of the ship this evening… and then there was the second hiccup of the day:

As we left Ghent to return to the ship, I lost Bob. We had boarded the bus; he was right behind me, but I couldn’t see him on the bus. Fearing that he had paused to take one last picture or had climbed onto the wrong bus, I asked the tour guide to help locate him. She ran helter-skelter from bus to bus looking for him–and ten minutes later, we found him on our bus, in a seat I could not see. Bob had heard his name, my voice and the commotion but didn’t think it had anything to do with him; the guide could simply have called his name over the bus PA; and I could have double-checked the bus myself. He is now known as “infamous Bob.”

For a couple of final treats….

Kiel Canal

This morning we ejected ourselves from the Baltic Sea, via the Kiel Canal into the North Sea.  The Kiel Canal is a 61-mile shortcut (like the C&O Canal in Maryland and many more in the US) which opened in 1895.  Of course, back then who knew that the Canal would open the Baltic Sea to invasive life from the Atlantic…but not to worry; the Baltic Sea has too little oxygen and salt for most healthy Atlantic life forms. There is very little life in the Baltic Sea to be invaded.

The North Sea is a very busy place. Joining the plethora of cargo ships on the North Sea are the trawling fishing boats, ships carrying propane and natural gas and huge windmill farms—all testament to the power of economic products (as is our cruise ship, for that matter). 

Most of our fellow passengers disembark on Friday, the 27th in Le Havre.  Some will be whisked home via air; others will stay and play a while in Europe.  Guesses are that half of us will remain on board for the final ports and sea days, and a few will board. As an end-of-cruise ritual, all passengers were asked to complete a marketing survey.  Separately, both Bob and I wrote “probably not” when asked if we would cruise again.  While we are glad to have taken this cruise, and survived it, our age has been undeniable. (Bob just burst into the room announcing: “We are old.”  It seems he couldn’t push the shuffleboard disc to the end of the court.  That may be more muscle tone, and less age, but still…)

Our next port is Zeebrugge, gateway to Brussels and Brugge and Ghent in Belgium.  Really ashamed and sorry to say this, but I don’t care a lot.  Medieval towns built by and for craftsmen in the Hanseatic trading league look a whole lot like Copenhagen’s Nyhavn.  Even thinking of Belgian chocolate doesn’t loosen my lassitude.  We will take a simple canal trip in Ghent, and move on to Le Havre, where Bob’s lifelong dream of a trip to Paris will run smack into the practicality of 6 hours of bus travel for a few hours of bus touring and “free”  time for lunch.  He will be able to say he has been there. 

Clearly, my mood needs a few hours of sunshine on the deck.

Estonia – as far East as I want to go

Some may not know the history of Estonia, or its two sister states (Latvia and Lithuania). All three are tiny little countries (think 2 New England states each). Latvia and Estonia share their borders with Russia.  If you don’t know the history, I highly, highly recommend the 90-minute video documentary made of their revolution: The Singing Revolution, available among other places on Amazon Prime.  Check out a preview on YouTube if you prefer. To put it briefly, these countries have mostly been Swedish or Danish or Russian except for brief intervals; in 1944, they were spoils of war given to Stalin.

Russia did not let them go until 1991-92, at which point they quickly became capitalist, democratic, FREE people with hatred toward their captors. “Under Russian, we were very, very happy; if we weren’t happy, we were sent to Siberia” said our guide.  One in five were imprisoned and/or shot by Russians. They could be sent to Siberia for wearing the colors of the Estonian flag: blue, black and white. There is a huge monument, comparable to our Viet Nam Memorial which lists the names of those known to have been sent to concentration camps.

The remarkable aspect of their freedom is that it was won with singing, as the documentary explains.  A custom of the Baltic States is singing, and song in their language (similar to Finnish, but incomprehensible to Russians) kept their culture and their nationalism alive.  “Gustav” is credited with quietly encouraging the singing, and Mikhail Gorbachev with allowing them to sing their national anthem (along with a full selection of Russian patriotic songs, of course).

This glorious photo of the Song Festival grounds includes the monument to “Gustav”proudly watching the stage on which 30,000 Estonians sat in front of 200,000 Estonians crammed into the grounds. The Oceania Insignia is just offshore. Iconic for our day in Estonia.

The perfectly preserved medieval history of Tallinn, which became a key part of the mercantile Hanseatic League in the 1400s, can almost make you forget its recent history.  The upper town is walled entirely with limestone walls; the lower town is a warren of narrow shopping streets. Those streets are now surrounded by beautiful, numerous hotels built in anticipation of heavy tourist traffic—stopped first by COVID and now by uneasiness about Russia and Ukraine. There is fervent hope that tourism will return soon.

At the start of Russian control, in 1944, housing was in serious short supply: three families to a flat.  Khrushchev endeared himself to Estonians by building communist housing and schools. Ugly, pre-fab, but so welcome. 

Other tidbits: Estonia and Finland have spent decades as neighbors across the Bay of Finland, blocked by Russia from communicating. Ironically, the Estonian and Finnish languages are intelligible to one another, but not to anyone else.  Now these two countries are great friends—sharing liquor (limited to 100 liters per purchase; winter is very long in Finland), employment and an anticipatory thirst for heating fuel. Estonia is now buying its oil from Norway; Finland is now building nuclear fuel stations to which they had been opposed.

Beautiful, modern street art lines boulevards and is featured in parks. This is just one example. Note the Oceania Insignia in the background.

The drumbeat of war is very near, again, for this very young country. They are reaching out to Ukraine, asking for more NATO troops, and international support. As part of the U.S. support, we docked this morning adjacent to the USS Paul Ignatius, a destroyer here to “meet and greet” local dignitaries. 

I have no desire to stay in this neighborhood. 

Helsinki, Finland…Wow!

From our balcony, the town of Helsinki, Finland. The tents are market stalls; the orange ones are food. You can see the ferry on the left, the swim club in the foreground, the Cathedral Dome in the background. From our BALCONY!

I quickly forgot my angst at missing the architectural tour at Copenhagen. Finland is the home of Eliel Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, and more. The city was laid out on pretty much bare ground by a German architect (Charles Engel) hired by Russian Czar Alexander II. Charles Engel designed most of the buildings surrounding the Senate Square to look like St. Petersburg, Russia, as the Czar requested. You can see the connection.

By the early 1900s, Finland began its “Finnish Nationalistic Style”–almost an exaggeration of Art Deco.

But my favorite of all is this masterpiece..

The Helsinki Library. Look closely and you can see the people reading and working inside. Stunning!

Still more in that modern vein:

And so much more! Marimekko is a chain store (does anybody else but me remember Marimekko fabrics?) Neither my camera nor our internet connection can show any more, and I don’t have time to share the other wonderful things about Finland (such as their police fired a total of 7 bullets last year, and their Prime Minister is a young female who travels the city without guards or fears of terroism).