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. 

Dark Clouds

Our gratitude and joy at being able to take this trip, buoyed by the love and support of friends and family is genuine—but I would be very remiss if I didn’t share the dark clouds which surround us as well: political instability, the death of the Baltic Sea, the reminders of World War II’s destruction and inhumanity. 

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

We are now steering closer to St. Petersburg, Russia, soon to be in Helsinki, Finland and Talinn, Estonia.  Our US government gave bipartisan support to the inclusion of Finland and Sweden in NATO, and the process of their inclusion in NATO is well underway.  This fact has been mentioned here regularly by Swedish tour guides and lecturer: Sweden has prided itself on its neutrality since Napoleonic times. Neutrality is part of their ethos.  With NATO membership, both Finland and Sweden have declared themselves on a “side” against that of their neighbor, Russia, and the world has lost the “buffer zone” they provided.  Estonia, already a member of NATO has asked for 20,000 NATO troops in each of the Baltic states as hopeful deterrents against Russian invasion.  The drumbeat of war is very loud in this region. 

The Baltic Sea has been dying for decades, as algae blooms de-oxygenate the waters, leaving too little oxygen for animals.  One of our cruise lecturers, an Oceanologist from San Diego shared a map of Baltic Dead Zones—which encompass most of the Baltic Sea.  He discussed the failure of the countries surrounding the Baltic to achieve any progress in reducing the nitrogen/phosphorus runoff which causes these blooms.  Later that day, I recognized a large yellow algae bloom on the ocean as we traversed it.  Sensitized by the Danish Design Museum’s strident message of environmental toxicity, I realize that the extent of this loss is a world tragedy which humans could have prevented or remediated.  Now it may be too late.

I remember with fondness Holger Neissen’s story of the Danish resistance in WWII, and the stories we read about in Oslo at the Norwegian Resistance Museum in Akershus Castle.  Amazing stories of bravery during occupation.  We heard about German submarines in the Orkney’s, friendly British occupation of the Faroes, saw cannon in Norway and now to Finland which was forced into war by Stalin. Their wounds are still fresh. Healing from WWII’s inhumanity of war is still underway here.

Dark Clouds….

Sea Days and Gratitude

This 46-day cruise has about 16 Sea Days, during which the ship never docks.  That’s many more than most people are willing to pay for.  We signed up for all 46 days, unaware that most of our fellow passengers were signing up for only a segment: the NYC to Reykjavik, or the Reykjavik to France.  Very few signed up for the final segment, France to NYC with its five sea days. (Insert two funny stories: we knew we would receive a welcoming bottle of wine upon embarkation. Given my GI problems, wine is no-no for now. We finally took pity on our cabin steward who insisted we take it and stashed it in the cabin refrigerator. Little did we know that we would be offered a second bottle in Reykjavik and will be offered a third in France!  Similarly, our room came with complimentary laundry service, after which we spent a sea day or two in the ship’s laundromat; the cabin steward was aghast: “No, you get laundry service for each segment.” Oops. Clearly, we are novices at living the life of the elite.)

What do passengers do on sea days? Pretty much what they do at home!  There are lectures, bridge games, bingo and casino games, puzzles, a pool, fitness center, library, and art loft for those who wish them.  The real difference between life at a CCRC and a cruise ship is that at our CCRC, we have created an expectation of community engagement, so we have committees to plan and execute all of the above—adding to our bonding and social life.  (I am told that those who cruised the 180-day around the world cruise earlier this year bonded tightly; they were the first post-COVID cruise, and were rerouted 80 times as ports opened and closed, and as many fell victim to COVID.)

Bob spends hours reading the news and taking/sorting his pictures. If he’s not running around the ship pursuing pictures of offshore windmills, geese or sunsets, he is sorting pictures or reading on his computer.  For me, I read, write, and ponder the life of an 80-year old, which is coming soon and is all new to me.  I have just completed a book I can highly recommend: Gabrielle Zevin’s Young Jane Young,  and am well into Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness.  To put it simply, this is what we desired: lots of places and sunsets for Bob to photograph, and lots of down time for me. Tonight, we are grateful: a fabulous meal, a chamber quartet in the lobby, the sunset over Stockholm and a guest comedian as the evening finale.

Design Museum Denmark: Unexpectedly Cerebral

Normally, museums follow a predictable pattern, but not this one.  Recently moved to what had been Frederick’s Hospital, the entrance to the Design Museum Denmark opens unto a large hall with a gorgeous garden straight ahead, a café on the left and the shop with ticket sales on the right.  Given that we arrived thirsty and hungry, we headed straight for the café….

Fresh green peas, fresh mozzarella cheese, olive oil, basil served with sour dough bread. Fantastic! Each chair in the cafe was a unique design, with a large poster so that you could identify the design/designer and time period.

Once satiated and ticketed, we followed the path to the “Future is Present” which was less an exhibit than a series of challenges starting with: What will humans want in the future? The answer was on the labels of hundreds of identically labeled bottles, each labeled “care.”

What will humans look like in the future? Human avatars on display, dressed to minimize contact with toxic earth or alternatively, intellectual sensory receiving units.

How will we remember our earth? An exhibit zooming the viewer into an ocean scene, or a meadow scene, complete with artificial scent.

What will our values be?  In response, viewers see themselves in a hall of mirrors; obviously the answers are up to us. 

From there, the path leads to “Patterns” featuring huge beautiful hangings of patterned/recycled material through which you literally wander.  We never made it to the second half of the museum, which may have been more traditional and less thought provoking.  The gift shop is almost exclusively books, very few trinkets and toys.  Altogether, very cerebral and impactful. 

On our trek to the museum, we meandered through Nyhavn, the world’s most photographed colorful housing.  Bob was in his element, as you can see. 

We also ducked through the courtyard of Amelienborg Palace with its numerous museums, but the temperature was 84 degrees and humidity high, so we didn’t stay.  Home again, past the Mermaid in the harbor, this shot is from our balcony. 

Goodbye Copenhagen, from our balcony. You can see Frederick’s Church with the dome. Frederick’s Church is quite near the Amelienborg Palace complex and many of the museums.

It’s a sea day tomorrow with more lectures, then Stockholm where my frivolous adventure of riding a car to the top of a Geodesic dome has been cancelled.  Sigh.  Back to the drawing board.  Our first trip to Stockholm allowed us to witness the rehearsal for the wedding of the Princess, with all the pageantry and royal carriages.  That won’t happen again.

We calculated tonight that we spent the first 8 days of this cruise together, then the next 10 days in various isolation protocols, and now 6 days of togetherness, and are past the halfway point for the cruise. Bob overhead a crew member’s comment today that they were running out of “spare cabins” in which to isolate spouses from one another. Not a good sign, so keep your fingers crossed for us. I do enjoy your comments, too…thank you for them!

A side trip to the Stone Age: the Orkney Islands

Orkney Islands greeted us with a mist so thick you could hardly see the side of the road.  Luckily, the mist cleared for these few photos. The Viking heritage is still a very strong feature, and thus the Orkney Islands were a fitting last stop on this Viking history tour.  The guide assured us that the Orkney Islands were geographically closer to Norway than to Edinburgh, and that both Orkney and Shetland Islands treasured their Viking/Norwegian connections. According to Wikipedia, most of the residents of these islands carry Viking DNA, and the Vikings had initially considered the Islands a part of Norway.  That nice, logical thinking came to an abrupt end when the King of Norway (in 1468, after 800 years of being part of Norway) pledged the islands as partial dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III of Scotland.   The marriage never occurred, and the islands have recently tried unsuccessfully to secede from Scotland. 

Also very dominant was the history of the area in WWII.  6000 sailors from the British Navy were stationed in the Orkney’s during the war; the fear was that Germany would attempt to construct an airbase there. 

Bob was so excited about his visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands that he wrote about it, and gave permission to share.  For more comprehensive information, two websites might give the basics: Skara Brae and the Guardian description.  Here, is Bob’s excited report:

We first drove past 4? standing Stones and then a Solitary stone.  We also drove by ~ 13 remaining standing Stones.  There had been perhaps 20 plus Stones that attracted Tourists so that the owner tried to blow them all up but was stopped after a few were destroyed.  Then the real attraction appeared.

These are the Standing Stones of Stennis in Orkney, Scotland  Originally perhaps 63 stones and today 27 stones are standing.  There are also several burial mounds here and nearby we saw.  One mound has the light reach into the inner chamber on the day of the Winter Solstice, like the the mound in Ireland. Vikings broke into this chamber after a raid and left the best example of Viking Runes graffiti  Our guide said that the Runes suggest Ingrid must have been a very busy girl.  I took many pictures.

Our last stop was Skara Brae, a well preserved Neolithic village located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, Orkney Scotland.  Our guide said the ‘bay’ had been a freshwater ‘?lake’ that would have been their water supply until the Atlantic Ocean broke through the land barrier.

Our guide said perhaps a 100 people at a time lived here from about 3400 to 2600 BC in 10 houses.  Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, a World Heritage site buried under the sand for millennia, an 1850 storm uncovered this small village.  It is currently believed that stronger winds covered the village and surrounding areas with sand several thousand years ago.  They would have had to leave.

A fascinating look at how people lived so very long ago.  More than 5000 years ago.  A HIGHLIGHT of the trip for me.

The subtext in this visit is Bob’s unadulterated joy at being able to travel on excursions.  He has a nasty cold, and will probably give it to me and others (the ship’s cruise director has just added a warning about the nasty cold traveling the ship; I think he means Bob) but keeping him isolated would be impossible.  For me, all of this history is MUCH less exciting, and the upcoming stops in Copenhagen and Stockholm where the featured tourist attractions are museums will encourage me to pursue the pleasures of the ship and its retreats with increased vigor.

Just to keep with tradition, here is the Oceania in the harbor at Kirkwell, Orkney Islands:

The Oceania in busy, industrialized Kirkwell, Orkney Islands.

The Faroes Islands, or is it Iceland?

At first glance this morning, Torshavn looks very different than either Aukyrei or Isafjordur in Iceland.

Torshavn, Faroes Island as we arrived. Population around 30,000 and very urban. But wait, no trees?

Once out of the city itself, the similarities between Iceland and the Faroes, hundreds of miles apart, became more clear:

Rugged basalt mountains with little soil, many waterfalls, covered only with moss and lichen and some grass. The grass is enough to graze a limited number of sheep, horses and cattle, who roam fenced areas. Once the number of sheep exceeds a certain number, the “excess” are slaughtered and sold for food. Cows, enough to sustain the Faroes’ dairy needs, are never allowed to roam, as they damage the soil and grass, although cattle roam in some areas.

The 18 Faroe Islands are connected with underwater tunnels, bridges and a network of ferries. They are owned by Denmark, and receive military, medical, and police training from Denmark. However, they are mostly self-governing and have a parliament (as well as two seats in the Danish parliament.) In WWII, they were “occupied” by Britain to save them from Germany during Denmark’s occupation. Unlike Denmark, they are not part of the European Union, as the fishing restrictions would impact an economy in which fishing is 93% of the industry. Salmon farming is a big, big thing; you’ve probably seen “Salmon from Faroes Islands” in the grocery. Their #2 industry, and growing, is of course tourism.

The Insignia in Torshavn harbor; one of 53 expected cruise ships this year.

The links between Iceland and the Faroes are more than just geologic. An 18-hour car ferry runs regularly between the two. A “sea stack” –two rock towers just off the coast–is said to be a witch and a giant trying to drag the Faroes back to Iceland. Sadly, the sun turned them to stone before finishing the job. The Faroese language is a blend of Icelandic, Old Norse and Danish which no one beyond the Faroese can understand. All students learn Danish and English and at least one other language. Our English-speaking guide spoke only Faroese to the bus driver.

Look carefully at this charming picture of Gotugjogv (pronounced “Jack”) and you can see the switchback single-land road leading to it. The town is mostly summer residences. Two fishing mishaps, each with a loss of 10 fisherman, decimated the tiny town and the fatherless families moved closer to city services.

The Faroes anticipate being fully energy independent by 2030. Wind, hydroelectric and restrictions on home heating sources (must be geothermal or heat pump) are expected to do the trick.

A small sample of mountain top wind farm….

Continuing our backward trek to the source of the Vikings who were the original European settlers will see us in the Orkney Islands of Scotland tomorrow and Norway the next day.

Bob joined in the excursions today, at last pronounced free of COVID! You can only imagine his joy; it’s been a very long time.

Akuyrei–Trees, Gods, Waterfalls

What a change, transiting from Isalfjord to Akuyrei. Both sit on the northwestern coast line of Iceland, with Akuyrei a bit north and central. It could be expected that it would be even more rural and harsh–but the opposite was true. Already a popular cruise stop…

Oceania Insignia in Akureyri Fjord; with two other cruise ships. The Jewel of the Seas has 2500 passengers and dwarfed our ship. That’s a lot of tourists!

The picture was taken from the bus window across the fjord, so it is unusually green, but TREES are everywhere. Akuyrei has been busily planting seeds for decades, trying to recover the forests stripped bare by Vikings and early settlers. A unique microclimate, nestled between mountain ranges, and some additional depth of soil allows the trees to succeed, and what a difference! The pride and joy in Akuyrei is its Botanical Garden, totally open to the air:

The Akuyrei Botanic Garden

One of these photos is for Bob; you can guess which one! The last one is to allow you to practice your Icelandic or of thinking you are in Longwood. The middle one is to show an example of the tidy, attractive housing we saw in this area, beautifully landscaped. Wood houses here are outlawed, as well as expensive.

Driving through the countryside, south to the tourist-must-see Godafoss Falls, revealed a lush and prosperous farmland with sheep, horses, bales of silage. Again from the bus this photo is intended to illustrate the tidy farm fields:

Farmlands south of Akuyrei, Iceland

Of course, the highlight for the many busloads of tourists is Godafoss. Godafoss Waterfall is redundant, as the Icelandic word for all waterfalls is “foss.” The legend is that the pagans and Christians were about to have a Civil War and a Viking chieftain decided (maybe in counsel with the Althing. ( Read about the Viking governance here) to rule in favor of the Christians. To show his commitment, he took all his pagan icons and images and tossed them in the Godafoss, and thus the name “God’s waterfall.”

Godafoss, Iceland

I didn’t toss a pagan icon into the Godafoss, but Bob’s antigen test this morning came came back negative! At last! Just one more negative and he’ll be free! We are each scheduled for different tours in the Faroe Islands tomorrow. I am SO looking forward to leaving cold and rain behind, but as you can imagine Bob is even more anxious to leave his stateroom. He’d go anywhere, although he has been enjoying reading and listening to music and sorting (as always) his trillion slides. From the Faroe Islands, it’s just a hop over to Scotland’s Orkney Islands…

Pictures of Isafjordur At Last!

We’ve all been frustrated with technology, and been resistant to asking for help. Me, too. Finally, I sought help from the ship’s internet help desk. Before I even asked, I found the sign on the door with the answer! Now I can add my pictures to the blog, taken with my phone. Part of my joy in doing this on the blog is to share with Bob, who is still in isolation after yet another positive antigen test. We haven’t seen one another in a week, and it will be at least two more days. So, hi, Bob! (though we do talk on the phone).

Pictures of Isafjordur show how cold, harsh and barren it appeared to me. Take a look at these (and remember Bob is the family photographer, so be gentle):

The Oceania Insignia seen from across the Isal Fjord, with the mountains in contrast behind.

The town of Isafjordur is equally barren, as I reported in the last post. Houses, corporate buildings, lumber supply all squished together. You will note the total absence of trees and bushes, adding to the sense of hardness.

The city of Isafjordur in Iceland

There are three churches in this tiny town of less than 3000. This is the “Farmer’s Church” built by a farmer, and exquisitely expensive with its wood floors, beams and pews. Notice our tour group admiring the cemetery; the gravestones were in Icelandic so it was hard to tell if the story that fisherman are never buried (because they die at sea) is true.

Farmer’s Church in Isalfjordur, Iceland

Inside the farmer’s church, we were treated to music, a 1208 traditional Icelandic hymn. Iceland is proudly Christian, though belief in trolls is popular and acceptable. If I can figure it out, I did record the Icelandic song and will share it. All in Icelandic of course. The singer also shared a traditional lullaby, which I didn’t record, as the musician explained that the backstory was of a mother saying farewell to her infant before tossing him into a waterfall.

It took months, but the audio file of the hymn is now available!
Musician inside the Farmer’s Church in Isalfjordur, Iceland

Speaking of waterfalls, they are numerous and beautiful, and provide the town’s drinking water. Here’s one.

Something-foss in Isalfjordur, Iceland (all waterfalls are foss)

The mountains and the ground have very little soil, so very little grows. The color comes from the lichen and moss. From the Farmer’s Church, a close-up of the lichen and moss on the gatepost:

Fungus and lichen at Farmer’s Church, Isalfjordur, Iceland

Today, we celebrated the first day of sunshine in a typical Arctic summer day of 52 degrees F. Here’s how I celebrated:

It’s summer! At last! in Akureyri, Iceland on our cabin’s balcony.

Tonight, we will cross the Arctic circle, and promptly set our clocks ahead another hour. We are now +5 hours from EDT. Tomorrow is a sea day, and maybe I’ll use it to share pictures from Akureyri which is a completely different microclimate…..

Historic Day

Ocean vessel with flag flowing in wind.

Even up here in Reykjavik, it feels like a historic day for America.  (We do get MSN and a 4-page newspaper.) Despite the continued refusal of Republicans to approve necessary legislation, the legislation has passed.  It appears that the documents owned by the USA are being retrieved from Trump’s home, a sign of some level of accountability for his multiple illegal actions.  Now, we can all cross fingers that we won’t have another variation of Jan 6 and that our country will stand down, unify a bit and use the political process we have honored for over 200 years.

In our own microscopic version of a historic day, I am awaiting the ship’s doctor’s final instructions and will soon be free to join the newest Insignia passengers in the ship’s programs and facilities.  Bob is getting better each day; he has lost all of his much desired whale hunts (though he assured me he saw a suspicious black rock in the ocean near Greenland..). We are crossing fingers that we’ll actually see each other on Thursday or Friday.

Keep your fingers crossed for all of us. 

Off to Isafjordur (no idea how to pronounce it), Iceland’s third largest city, which features a museum (for tourists), a school, a fisherman’s hut, a church and a garden. They do have a special excursion to the Fox Centre which features an avalanche movie. Seriously.

How is a Cruise Ship Like a CCRC? (and good news!)

Bored, that’s me.  Pondering the relationship between my CCRC home and my current isolated, temporary residence on a cruise ship and realizing that both have lots in common: demographic challenges, COVID recovery, very similar labor issues, and long-term issues of environmental sustainability.  How’s that for boring?

Looking around this ship (pre-isolation), the age and demographic is almost identical to that found in CCRCs: white, wealthy, post 75, entitled and demanding.  In neither cruise nor CCRC industries can that continue.  Both need to appeal to younger crowds while maintaining the loyalty of their current base.  For cruise ships, the young crowd seems to be attracted by short, cheap trips with DJs and alcohol and very limited service.  Oceania just tried three such trips, and the crew was truly relieved to see we sweet old-timers return. For CCRCs, the secret to attracting younger residents may be increased independence, a cafeteria of upscale amenities and an emphasis on a more global culture. 

COVID created a full-out cruise “pause” (the term used by our cruise crew), while CCRCs struggled to meet their contractual obligations to residents—but both business models were challenged economically and postponed needed long term planning, particularly related to labor and sustainability issues, which brings us to….

Labor for a cruise ship is largely provided by young adults from countries with low employment opportunities; the money earned is essential income for the home families of these young adults.  Oceania advertises that there are 81 nationalities on board.  Labor for a CCRC is also significantly provided by minimum wage workers.  CCRCs could look to the cruise model to provide a global workforce, or better, engage in revising immigration policies to allow an increase of global workers pursuing citizenship.  It works for the US military, which recruits non-US citizens to serve in exchange for a quicker path to citizenship.

To quote the estimable Judd Apatow, “It’s not worth killing the oceans to get free buffets.” The cruise industry is tending to its public sustainability issues.  We get no plastic water bottles, for a tiny example, but are given refillable metal water bottles to take on excursions. YouTube is filled with videos of the sustainability efforts of cruise ships.  CCRCs have a long way to go.

On the medical side:  I just received the first of two essential NEGATIVE COVID tests!  I have no COVID!!!  Meanwhile, Bob’s COVID fever appears to have broken; he’s on the mend!!!! A confirmatory test tomorrow could set me free!!!  If so, I’ll wave good-bye to Reykjavik from anywhere but this room!!! Maybe I’ll even get to visit Isafjor on Wednesday!! Cross your fingers.