“Here we are at…” pictures

At the Berlin Wall

In the rain by the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen

Preparing to Return to SoFla

Since our last post we have visited Tanin (the capital of Estonia) and Copenhagen (Denmark’s capital). Tanin is sort of a “Medieval World” realtown. The distinction is that the buildings and streets in the old town area (which consists of about five square miles of walled-in hill-top) have the same basic surfaces and facades as they did in the 1400’s. Of course, the sanitation has been upgraded, and the interiors have likewise been furnished in modern mien to meet modern commercial needs of the tourist trade. That said, the old town is charming and picturesque. Other than Les’s painful broken foot (which is on the mend and getting better daily — but still restricts her ability to move around with any kind of alacrity), we would have been able to more fully enjoyed this surprisingly quaint and pleasant little gem of a city. Of course, the obligatory MacDonald’s as you enter through the main city gate subtracted much from the otherwise charming feeling about the place. It seems that most Estonians speak several languages (as do most Scandinavians), including English. They are taught these tongues in elementary school (or their version of same). So from one of the locals we were able to obtain good directions to a somewhat off the beat and track craft store  where Les bought a hand-made, leather-bound, photo scrap-book for all the great photos I plan to download when I get home (and then Photoshop into memorable condition, such as changing cloudy days into sunny days!)

We have also learned that the children in most of the countries we have visited (especially, Holland Finland, Denmark, Germany and Sweden), receive superior public educations in their schools — concentrating on math, science and language training.  In addition, their social services — such as health care — are provided from birth to death, all paid for by the state. As a consequence, their tax rates are higher than the U.S. (50% top rates vs. 35% in U.S.), but the “return” on that 15% investment appears to be well worth the cost. In Finland, teaching is considered a most-worthy profession, and their teachers actually have to compete for the privilege of having a teaching job. In return they get very high pay. Their average class size is about fifteen pupils, and there are two teachers in every classroom — a leader and his or her teaching assistant. As a result, the Fins score the highest on their math and science tests, and their high-tech industry is excelling on the world markets.  Hmmm…might we in the U.S. learn a lesson from this?

Today is our last “day at sea.” Essentially this means that we can rest up from our vacation, pack up from our vacation, print out boarding passes, continue to eat too much, and take a moment to reflect upon the last sixteen days….

Yesterday was our day in Copenhagen. It rained the entire time we were on tour (it rains in Copenhagen 170 days each year). When we returned to the ship, the rain stopped and the sun came out (sort of part of the tour package). Nonetheless, we were able to view and have one of our tour group take our picture at the Little Mermaid sculpture, we saw Tivoli Gardens, the palace of the queen and royal family, the canals of Copenhagen (look just like Amsterdam’s), the Lutheran Church where the royals wed, are crowned, etc., and various other places of historical and cultural interest in Copenhagen. I was most moved by the apartment where Hans Christian Anderson lived and wrote many of his tales ( The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, etc.).

We did luck out with the group we came to sit with each night at the late dinner seating. These consisted of two English couples traveling together, and one couple from New Jersey who were being accompanied by their lately widowed father, a Virginian named (believe it) Buck White. At age 81, Buck was dancing merrily with the girls in the Rendezvous Lounge last night. The New Jersey couple, David and Carol from Princeton, were originally from Virginia. Dave works for the marketing department of IBM. The two British couples (Jeff and Maureen and Mark and Sue) are basic working-class-type folks, in their fifties, who are jolly and humorous. Both Jeff and Mark must each be about six-foot-two and weigh maybe 250 to 300 pounds (they look like ex-football players). They both work together in Bristol. Jeff lives in London and Mark in Bath. We learned that Bristol is the birthplace of Cary Grant (and his ancestral home there is suitably memorialized). Last night I returned to the ship’s casino, where David, Carol and Buck found me and stopped by the watch me play the Texas Hold-em table game. They said they had come by to bring me luck, which they apparently succeeded at, as I then proceeded to have winning hand after winning hand until I won back all the money I had previously donated to Celebrity Cruise line during my previous ten nights of play. When they left, I stopped and left as well. Of course, the way I gamble in casinos — which is more to just chat with the fellow players and not lose any significant amounts — my “winnings” consisted of about $900 (the aggregate of what I was at that point “down.” So I quite when I got ahead (meaning, “even”).

There was one bit of casino excitement when the lady sitting next to me (Janice from Plantation, Florida), was dealt of royal flush in spades at the Texas Hold-em table. She had only a minimum bet down but won over $3,000.  Such a hand is extremely rare. Many of the dealers had never seen a royal flush dealt in Hold-em up until then. Remember, we are talking about understand what is essentially seven-card stud.   It’s okay though, Janice had sufficient time left to lose back the entire $3,000 (which she may or may not have done).

So we have had a good long break from the daily routine of our lives — something a vacation is supposed to be all about. We have seen much and been pampered much (and eaten way too much)…also the things that vacations are supposed to be all about as well.

We look forward to coming home safely and sharing a bit of our memories with you all…Oh yes, and we also look forward to our next vacation!

The Egg and Us (on us?)

It’s been several days since our last post. As previously reported, the internet service on the ship is somewhere between intermittent and sluggish.

After leaving Germany and enjoying a day at sea, we arrived at Helsinki, the capital and major city of Finland. We had a Finnish guide (Helga, Elena, Elke or something), who was quite nice…..she went way out of her way to assist three wayward guests (explained below).

The places we visited in Helsinki included several churches, government buildings, a palace, and the Sibelius monument (John Sibelius was a leading classical composer who died around 1953 – at around 92 years of age. His Finlandia was a must listen for kids growing up in the 1950’s. I remember it for its ponderous and gloomy tone).  The mots interesting sight was the “Rock” church. This consists of a Lutheran church hewn from a granite hill, such that the walls are all rough granite. It is both dazzling in its conception and magnificent in its execution. The reds and oranges of the granite, the water running down the inside walls (into specially built French drains), the copper pipe organ — all make for a grandeur that in some way exceeded even Notre Dame de Paris.

After we left the Rock church, it began to rain. We were on the coach (bus) when Helga did her body count, only to discover three people absent (and well beyond the appointed return time). She then left the bus and went back to the church (which was up a steep hill from where th bus was parked) and while the rain increased our guide, Elena, went to look for the wayward three. Helga didn’t have an umbrella and was getting soaked. No luck. She returned to the bus and did another body count. We were now at least twenty minutes past our appointed time of return, so Elke (still our same guide) trekked up the hill again to look for the unholy three (the rain was coming down much harder by now). About five minutes later Elene returned with the now-sheepishly grinning embecilic three. She appeared to be wholly unfazed, made no mention of the incident, the idiot three, nor her drenched hair, and happily informed us as to our next spot on the tour. It appears the three tardy jerks were in the souvenir shop across the street from the Rock church and just got carried away looking for moose pictures or some such.

Here I must add an interesting observation regarding the tour guides. We have been on four tours so far, each with a different kind of tour guides for each country (Germany, Sweden, Finland and Russia). The German guide (Johannes), announced that we should not be late, explaining, if you are five minutes late, you have to sing for us; if you are ten minutes late, you have to dance for us; and, if you are fifteen minutes late, you have to sing and dance where the bus used to be.  No one was late in Germany.

The Swedish guide (Helga, or Elena, or Elke), didn’t have to deal with the issue, as we were left off to walk about Olde Town (the nice section of Stockholm), and all passengers could catch the shuttle bus back to the ship which ran every fifteen minutes at a set location.

We already told you about the Finnish guide (Elke, Helga or whatever).

Our Russian guide, a middle-aged, stout woman, named Iryana, or Elena, or Elke, Helga, or something, who looked like a cross between Joe Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, would do a quick body count, upon which the bus would immediately take off, sort of like intimating that any late arrivals could always just walk the ten miles back to the ship — in the snow, and without any food (the Russians still like to employ the “scorched earth” policy  — to teach them a lesson)!

In Stockholm we visited the Nobel Prize Museum, and we spent a half hour watching a movie about Albert Einstein (it was really fascinating, as it dealt with his personal life, is two wives, etc.).  The problem has been Lesley’s broken left foot, which makes it very hard for her to transgress uneven surfaces or take long walks, so we changed our tours to those  involving little walking. Today, for example, our second day in St. Petersburg, we opted to stay on the ship and rest up. There has been a two-hour time difference since leaving Stockholm, so we are now eight hours ahead of you. But the last two tours have required us to get up at six AM, so it felt like 4:00 AM and 5:00 AM, and we have late seating dining (which begins at 8:30 and finishes at around 10:30.

In Helsinki, after we left the Rock church, it really started  to pour, so we didn’t even leave the bus for the photo-stops (ergo, I have few photos of Helsinki after the church visit). This was no great loss, as there isn’t really much to see in Helsinki. We were left off in th downtown area, where we went onto Stockmans department store, which we were told rivalled Harrods of London as one of Europe’s greatest stores.  We have been to Harrods. Sorry, Helga, Stockmans is no Harrods.  We did get out of the rain though. What Stockmans did have was a great eatery on the top floor and another in the lower level. Unfortunately, we had already had a hot chocolate and sandwiches at a local cafe on the main street of Helsinki, so we missed out on the Stockmans’s restaurants (our guide should have pointed out these eateries when we passed Stockmans on the tour).  Sorry, Helga, we’ve been to Harrods and Stockmans is no Harrods. 

The prices for clothes in these various stores rival New York (don’t think Macy’s, think Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus).

Well, back to Russia:  We learned that St. Petersburg’s weather is somewhere between dark and gloomy and light and gloomy. In the Summer (a short eight to ten weeks) it is almost always cloudy and rains frequently. Being near the arctic circle, the days are long in the Summer (the sun set about 9:30 PM and rose about 6:30 AM). But in Winter, the opposite is true, and it gets dark early (around 3:00 PM) and the sun rises late (around 10:00 AM), and it gets so cold and wet that the rivers, canals, lakes and the Baltic Sea, all surrounding and within St. Petersburg, freeze over. And the average winter temperature hovers around minus zero (Celsius, not Farenheit). During the Nazis siege of Leningrad (the former and letter name for St. Petersburg) which lasted 900 days, one-third of the population of three million, that’s about one million, of the population died from hunger and cold.

The Winter Palace and the Hermitage museums were well worth the visit (if not the entire cruise), and St. Basil’s and St. Isaacs cathedrals were also fantastic. St. Isaacs is the third largest Basilica in Europe — second only to St. Peter’s in the Vatican and St. Paul’s cathedral in London (both of which we have seen). But St. Basil’s is the most impressive, with its many bulbous and colorfully decorated minarets (or steeples or whatever you call them). We did get some great pictures  (I hope to be able to attach some when I can do – the download/upload speed is presently just too slow).

The artworks we saw in the Hermitage took my breath away. I am especially fond of the French Impressionists, like Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Van Gogh (although I think he was Dutch), and there are four rooms of paintings just with these artists. The Rembrandts also were amazing. I was captivated by two in particular, “Portrait of a Scholar” and “Portrait of the Old Jew.” The hands and face of Rembrandt’s character studies are what you must focus on — they tell a story.

We are going to lunch now, so I will end this epic here. There is much more to recite, but the pictures will really help with those remembrances.

The last entry today is the fact that we bought a Faberge Egg (they call them “Fauxberge eggs”) in St. Petersburg. The price was over 5,000 rubles! That means we spent almost $175 for the egg. So I guess that means that the egg is on us…….

On the Ship (first day)

First day on the Constellation. This is what they call a “day at sea.” For us it’s more like our first day at rest…Amsterdam was yesterday and Thursday. Yesterday we toured the Coster diamond factory, where the cut, polish and set the stones that come in from South Africa. It was interesting to learn about how diamonds are classified (e.g., ‘River” is best quality; “brilliant” and “royal 201” are the best cuts, with the “royal 201” being the most popular; and of course weight in carats (they don’t use fractions, they use “points” so a 3 1/2 carat stone is 3.50 carats. They took our little group of about ten from the Celebrity group into a private room where a “guide” (actually a polished salesman), Andreas from Rome,  showed us a lot of diamonds (all for sale), as he explained that this factory (Coster’s primary world facility) has no “middle man,” it being the wholesaler to jewelry stores worldwide, so we would not be able to buy a diamond product cheaper anywhere else (unless we were in the jewelry business and a buyer of diamonds at Coster’s wholesale prices).  One of our group (Lenny Weiner, an ER physician from St. Louis) bought a ring for his wife, Charlene. We were impressed with the five carat, river-quality, royal 210-cut diamond, that Andreas offered us for 120,000 euros (about $175,000), so we grabbed it, before any of the others in our group could buy it.

A note about Lenny (more to come later): he is an as ER physician, in practice for many years. Two of his kids are doctors as well. Lenny and Charlene eat strictly kosher, so they must constantly eat special food (sticking to vegan when they can’t get kosher). Lenny saw that Les was limping about and in obvious pain, and he graciously offered to take a look at her foot after we again boarded the bus. The good news was that nothing major appeared to be wrong with her foot and there was no reportable pain;  the bad news was that the pain was coming from her left foot, which, upon examination, led Lenny to diagnose that she probably had a hairline fracture and should have the foot x-rayed as soon as we got on board.

Because we had grabbed the five-carat diamond, we were taken by security to await the arrival of the Amsterdam police…….but that’s another story.

We then went to the pier to board the ship where we unpacked and went to the ship’s medical center. While waiting for the doctor (Marrietta Leves), a man wearing a yamulka came in to speak to the nurse (it was Friday night, so we assumed he was either one of those orthodox Jews who always wore a skullcap, or he was attending Shabbat services on board). I don’t recall how we struck up the conversation, but the short of it is that he was 70 years old (though looked 50), had just attended the Shabbat service and had forgotten to take off the yamulkah. He somewhat abashedly took it off when we drew casual notice to it (by our laughing and pointing at his head), and we learned that he was from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, his name is Richard Mark, and he belongs to the same temple where Lesley’s cousins, Lee and Rosedale Hymerling, are members. He knows them well (Lee had been the President of the congregation). To coin an original expression here, “it’s a small world!”

Dr. Leves carefully examined Les’s foot, which was giving her no discomfort whatsoever. Unfortunately, once again upon examining her left foot, upon x-raying, revealed a hairline fracture exactly where Lenny had opined it would probably be. Dr. Leves advised that she should stay off her left foot as much as possible (there is no cast recommended for such a minimal fracture). It will take four to six weeks to heal, and she should take Ibupropen to alleviate the pain. I asked Dr. Leves why she thought Dr. Leves had to stay off her foot and she couldn’t give us any satisfactory answer. She also advised that Lesley should stay off Lesley’s foot for four to six weeks. This means that we will have to avoid any of the strenuous walking tours. We are of course devastated, as we enjoy the long walking tours, as it helps us burn off a tiny fraction of the calories we ingest (see future blogs re same) and keep us really fit so we don’t inure knees, feet, etc. We re-arranged the tour package and will make the most of the situation. Tonight is the first formal night, so we have to dress in formal ware. We won’t be dancing, however… We were given a DVD showing the fracture so we can give it to an orthopedist when we get home. If we had a disc drive in this MacBook Air, we could share it with you all — it’s really quite stirring. Dr. Leves suggested we show it to Lenny; however, we had already paid him quite a bit for his first examination (enough to buy his wife a ring at Coster), so we think it best to stop at two opinions from physicians with us on this vacation (anyway, neither knows their left from their right)…..

I see my battery is down to 3%, so I will have to stop (I’m sure your devastated to learn this). We will try to post some photos again when we can.

 

Love to you all; wish you were here (in such case, we would wish we were there)…

Okay, we have been able to catch our breaths….

A little taste of Monmartre

That's us being upstaged by someone's idea of an erector set

That's us being upstaged by the place where Lon Chaney and Charles Laughton lived.

Hall of Mirrors at Versailles -- George Clemenceau and Lloyd George hammered out the terms of a treaty ending WWI that would inevitably lead to WWII.

Mon diu, she just hangs there and stares at you...

Waiting on line at the Louvre to go through security

It was our plan to post a blog daily, setting forth our great adventures and uploading our even greater photos. There has just been too much going on (and a lot of my ineptitude) such that we (I) haven’t gotten around to posting yet. But here goes:

First the bad news: several things have conspired against us so as to make internet use a bit of a hassle. These include.: the wifi that we paid for in our room didn’t work (both hotel’s servers – they both use “Ibahn” – have been having problems, the most recent being that our room tonight is out of the range of the wifi system! They offered to move our room, but that’s just too much of a hassle. too as well; second, my new laptop (the MacBook Air) has no way to connect directly to the internet via an ethernet slot (there is n such slot). There have been other technical problems, but why bore you with those (when I can bore you just as well with my brief synopsis of our first four days).

Sunday we flew out of MIA and arrived at CDG after a pleasant flight (but neither of us could get any sleep). The drive from CDG to the hotel (Marriott Rive Gauche) was long but also most pleasant (we got to see the better part of the industrial heart of Paris — make sure you don’t miss this!).

As we were determined to stay up to try and “catch up” to the jet lag (to our bodies it was about 3:00 AM whereas to the Europeans it was about 9:00AM). And so, off we went to the Louvre (via the Paris underground) to see the Mona Lisa, etc. The Louvre is the largest museum in the world, and you could spend many months in just seeing the regular exhibits. We did it in about two hours, including the thirty minutes we waiting to get through the outside security check line). You see what you can do when you are determined (and zonked out). And its damn hard to get to see the Mona Lisa; they have it behind a plastic barrier and set away perhaps fifteen or twenty feet away from the visitor rail (some jerk deliberately damaged it a few years ago). And the crowds around the rail were difficult to get through. The rest of the museum was easy to navigate. The only drawback was the lack of air conditioning (it was about 32 degrees Monday — that centigrade).

After the Louvre (it was now about one o’clock (seven o’clock to us), we walked the length of the Jardin Touleries — a long planted park that stretched from the Louvre to the Arc de Triumph. Here we had a lunch consisting of crepes and a scoop of ice cream. Then we went back to the hotel via a long walk and the underground and finished unpacking. Then we had dinner in a great Italian restaurant next to the hotel (best spaghetti a la bolognese and best fresh baked bread ever).

We probably did some other things Monday, but right now I can’t recall them…

Tuesday early AM we took the train to Versailles and toured the palace. We saw the King Louis XVI’s bed chambers, Marie Antoinette’s bedchambers, the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, etc. Unfortunately (1) none of the fountains were working and (2) nothing as air conditioned in Versailles, and it was again in the 30’s (centigrade, of course). Les again injured her foot on the uneven cobblestones at the palace, so she can barely walk. We had a lunch in the town of Versailles (best fresh baked bread ever), then took the train back to old town.

We also saw Notre Dame, the Champs Elyses, the Eiffel Tower, and all the usual obligatory sites one sees in Paris.

Yesterday was sort of a high point, as we went to Monmartre (the highest hill section of Paris), where we went into the Basillica (the Church of the Sacred Heart), wandered about the street and then had a fabulous meal at Moulin de (or du) la Gallette. Then it was dark, so we had the taxi take us around Paris to see the sights of Paris at night (Paris a nuit). This is because Paris is the “City of Light.”

We also had by now joined the Celebrity short tour f Paris whereby we met our tour group (of twelve folks — more about them at another time). We took a boat tour along the Seine. That was great.

Then today we got up at some ungodly hour and took the high speed train to Amsterdam, where we wandered around the canals and the red light district. Amsterdam is a great city. Great little shops and restaurants and a great red light district. Also, Amsterdam has a lot of young, rich and English-speaking people and a thriving red light district. Tonight we had dinner in a house where they secreted a Jewish family in the attic during WWII. After dinner, we watched as they returned to the attic, and we came back to our hotel. And oh yes, I forgot to mention the wonderful red light district.

We already have had a few adventures, but because we have to be up really early tomorrow to go see the Anne Frank house and then board our ship, I will save for another time…..did I mention that Amsterdam has legalized prostitution?

Signing off for these past three days…..I’m going to try and download a few photos now.

Welcome to our blog

Tonight we are making the first entry into our vacation blog. We take off from Miami Sunday evening at about 6:00 and arrive in Paris Monday morning about 8:30. The flight is over eight and a half hours (for joy, for joy, over eight hours on a cramped 747!) Yes, we will be flying for over eight and a half hours (and yes, our arms will surely get tired….but surely you can’t be serious…I am serious and don’t call me surely!) If this is the kind of material you will be seeing on this blog, I suggest you go to the Abbot and Costello web page instead (http://www.abbottandcostello.net/).

Blogging is new to us, so it may take some time for us to get into it. Please be patient with us…..

Just a brief overview of our vacation:

Paris for two nights; then to Amsterdam via high-speed rail; then overnight in Amsterdam; then on the Celebrity Constellation for a twelve night Scandinavia and Russia cruise

On our last Celebrity Cruise I was forced to become a popsicle stick guy....

Via the cruise we will see Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tannin, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg.

Well, I see that my “word count” is over 200, and I was advised that, if you can’t write something worth reading in 100 words of less, you better quit

while you are behind….