Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

From Russia with Mom – Musing on Cruising

After only three days on the boat we are learning about the culture of cruising.  Life is divided between the Boat and the Bus –  cruising from port to port, followed by  at least one bus tour at each stop.  As a companion/escort for the oldest person on the boat, my goal is :Don’t be last to board the bus.  This is not easy.

In Stockholm we kept no-one waiting as we left the boat, nor after the Vasa Museum.

But we were the last on the bus after visiting the Stockholm City hall where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet each December 10.  Here is what the guide (a charming Swedish Carol Channing type)  said in her Swedish accent:  “When you exit the souvenir shop go through the arch on the left there will be your bus waiting.”

We were not the only ones who heard: “When you exit the souvenir shop, go through the arch.  On the left there will be your bus waiting.”

She meant :” When you exit the souvenir shop, go through the arch on the left.  There will be your bus waiting.”

The issue – there were two arches – one IN FRONT of the exit, as well as a much less prominent arch in the dark on the left when you exit.   So we got lost (along with Christine and Mark from Pennsylvania, bless their hearts) and were retrieved twenty minutes later by the assistant guide who was supposed to be bearing up the rear to make sure all laggards were accounted for, but somehow lost track of us. Bah!

Doing the bus tour each day feels like being part of a canned travelogue in a bubble, but I can’t leave Mom on her own, so I have abandoned the bike tours which were going to be my  variety.  The lap of luxury is still a lap – we are used to being a bit more active.

Back on the boat, at a cocktail party for first-timers we met two other sets of mother/daughter voyagers.  The 89 year old said to Mom –” so sorry to hear you have beaten me by two years – I’m not the oldest on the boat!”

Mom rapped back instantly “I’m sorry too!”  General laughter.

Mom at lunch: “There’s a statue over there – it’s a copy of something that is very familiar;  I think it’s Rodin;, can you name it?”  I look, see no statue.  “I don’t recognize a statue,” I say to her.  She gets up, goes closer to see.  The waiter mimes anxiously, as she wanders toward the deserted corner, “Is she all right?”  I mime “It’s ok.”  Mom looks about in the corner, returns .  “It was a pile of dirty napkins.  That’s AWFUL!”

There are a lot of groups, but we are not part of any.  Even the mothers-and-daughters have other family members they are with, and no invitations to join them are forthcoming  So we are spending a lot of time together.  I have much more understanding of the handicaps Mom is living with – and more admiration for the way she gallantly overlooks and surmounts them.

It is what it is.  Her eyesight and hearing seem to go in and out – she can spot a sign out of the corner of her eye “Did that say ‘teleferique’?” No, it was “telegraf” – pretty close;  and then mistake a pile of napkins for a statue by Rodin.  She can rap right back in conversation, and then not be able to hear me across the table. Meanwhile, I am learning to go at a slower pace, to listen, to think ahead, to appreciate the small comforts of a cozy robe, a sunny balcony, a reclining chair.

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From Russia with Mom – Day 8-9 – Stockholm

Stockholm – Another sparkling day  spent in buses and museums. You can imagine being a Viking on a day like this, cruising through the inlets and isles of the Swedish coast, riding the wind on a dragon boat, monarch of the world!

Some museums are worth it.  The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is a jaw dropper!  Nothing had prepared me for the impact of this one-of-a-kind, perfectly thought-through museum.  Walk into the darkened hallway and enter the cavernous museum hall  and there is a 17th century war ship levitated from the deep like something in a fevered dream of Pirates of the Caribbean, except that not even Jack Hawkins could imagine the demented level of decoration (when you look up the work ornate  in the dictionary … or did I say that before ?) – spars and shrouds and rigging all looking like it is ready to sail off into a night sky to join The Flying Dutchman.   Instead, on its maiden voyage in 1628 the weight of all that decoration caused it to capsize, then sink.  Its masts  sticking up from the bottom were a hazard of the harbor until the embarassed king (who had taken over design when the shipbuilder died) had the masts cut off.

The museum design allows you to view a ship model up close, then go from the top floor down level by level, giving you a close-up view of every detail from the crows nest to the keel.  Videos, slide show overlays, and artifacts document both the building of the ship, the tremendous engineering feat which brought it up in one piece from its resting place of over 500 years, and its meticulously imagined and executed  restoration.

The next Notable Site was the Stockholm City hall where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet each December 10, the anniversary of the death date of Alfred Nobel.  It was fun imagining oneself dancing in the art-deco gold-mosaic  ball room.   The mosaic which dominates the hall does its best to be ecumenical, with Europe and the US represented on one side of the giant goddess of knowledge, and the domes of Istanbul, a tiger, an elephant, some vaguely Chinese mountains and an Arabian flag on the side of Asia.    What about Africa? India? South America?  I guess to the Swedes of 1920 most of the Southern Hemisphere was just geography.

Can you spot the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty? (lower left)

After the official bus tour I joined up with a fellow cruiser and took the shuttle back to central Stockholm.  Stockholmers tall, healthy, erect, slender, tending to blond.  Streets clean, wide, lined with parks and trees.  What’s not to like?  (It’s a bait-and-switch – think about December when you have only 5 hours of weak sunlight per day!)

[Note: one of the cruise entertainers has written several blog posts about this same trip – for a different point of view, check out Duke Zoran’s Blog on Stockholm]

Tourist shopping tip: to avoid impulse purchases and subsequent buyer’s remorse, be pre-armed with an idea of something you would actually like to buy; if you find it, you have a successful souvenir;  if not, you at least have a way to fend off souvenir hawkers.  My comrade was looking for knitting wool;  we poked around some very interesting shops in the course of finding something wonderful.

Next day – on the bus once more for a tour of the Viking Golden Hoard in the Historical Museum and a visit to the Royal Armoury in the basement of the Royal Palace.  The lean and acidulous retired professor leading the tour  enthralled us with the political maneouvreing between Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark during the 18th – 20th centuries – seems the Swedes were quite accustomed to cutting their coat to suit the prevailing winds (AKA neutrality).

It was a beautiful day to be passing in a dungeon (the locale of the armoury) so we were glad when the tour brought us back to the boat.  The clouds were hovering and the wind freshening as we left Stockholm harbor , but now post-lunch we are on the sunny side of the boat and Mom is wrapped in a cozy terry robe snoozing  on our balcony as the Baltic Sea rustles by.

We are very close to some of the small islands  – suddenly we are passing a very serious looking gun emplacement with pillboxes set into the hill and large cannons looming.  Guns of Stockharone?

Tips on travel with the Oldest Old – Part III – Cruising

Failing strength, advancing years, and weakening eyesight may not dull the wanderlust in the heart of the traveler – what alternatives are available to ease the travel experience for the itchy-footed elderly?  There are many  – the cost often varying in direct proportion to the level of ease and convenience provided.  Careful shopping and the assistance of a good travel agent can help.

One of the most popular alternatives for an elderly traveler is the boat cruise.  The advantages are immediately clear:

Having a boat as home base  eliminates the bother and confusion of packing and repacking, saving energy for the important business of sight-seeing and socializing.   Every night spent in the same bedroom eliminates the possibility of something critical being left behind.

Home away from home

Having the same bedroom layout, dining room access, and elevator access each day is a great help to a visually or mobility-impaired traveler. If the goal is to relax, eliminating the tension of getting to know a new “home base” is a big plus.

The ratio of personnel to guests is usually high on a cruise ship, ensuring there will be plenty of assistance available as needed, either for embarking and disembarking or for planning and enabling excursions along the cruise route.

Being on a cruise ship allows the scenery to come to the traveler.  One elderly friend of mine enjoys cruise after cruise on the same ship.  He has become friends with the crew, enjoys the amenities on board, observes the constantly changing scene at the ports of call  and in between, but never leaves the boat.

Caveat:

Cruises can be pricey;  look for discounts at the edges of the season.  We were able to book a seven-day cruise on a 6-star cruise line at a very considerable discount in the spring of 2012 during the European economic crisis and just after the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground .  If your times a bit flexible, you may luck out. A travel agent can be very helpful in sniffing out the best deals.

Cruises do depend for success  on smooth water,  good weather, and capable crews.  There are storms on the Baltic, hurricanes in the Caribbean.  There is no calm-water guarantee, and no way to pull over to the shoulder of the sea until the roughness goes away.  And those pictures of the Costa Concordia are not reassuring.

Cruises can be cliquish.  Use the Social Director or equivalent to match you with other unattached pairs if you are not part of a family or tour group .Mom and I were hoping to connect with some other couples and singles during the cruise, to lighten the dependence on each other, but it didn’t happen natuarally.   When toward the end of our cruise we mentioned our wish to  the Cruise Social Director, he swept us into a group of other unattached pairs and we had a wonderful evening – we should have done this right away.

Helpful Hints:

If you are on a cruise where there are “deluxe” dining areas, rush to sign up for these the instant you arrive on the boat – we never made it to the top-of-the-line restaurant on our boat because it was completely booked by the time we arrived just an hour past the earliest boarding time. Fortunately, the other restaurant choices were delectable – no worries.

The buffet is good if you are in a hurry to eat in order to be on time for some activity; otherwise don’t waste your calories here if there is a full-service restaurant available. After our first day on the boat we never served our own lunch again.

From Russia with Mom – Day 7 – Helsinki

I awake at 6:30 (fortunately we get an hour back as we journey westward toward Copenhagen) and catch a glimpse of Finland’s World Heritage site Suomenlinna skimming by the railing – an old fort, a tower, and then we are at the port and docking.  We have a bus tour of the city scheduled;  we endeavor to be ready on time, but Mom has misplaced the key card which she needs to get on and off the boat and by the time we get to the bus they have been waiting pretty patiently for almost 15 minutes.  But everyone is very nice to a smiling nonagenarian and her escort.

Helsinki is a small city of only about 600,000 people, so the bus drives in circles to spend the time required to justify the cost of the expedition.  We see the Senate Square, the Parliament Building, pass the National Museum twice before going inside, park several blocks from the Church of the Rock and walk a few blocks.  Helsinki is all about the architecture –the gleaming white Lutheran cathedral which gives the  White City of the Baltic its nickname,  the red brick Russian Orthodox church on an opposing hill, and the eco-modern architecture of the Church of the Rock (so called because it is built into a hill so as not to disturb the neighborhood sight lines.

We end at an outdoor café by the harbor for Finnish snacks: rye flatbread with smoked reindeer and mustard; Karelli Pie – a sort of cheese pastry with diced hard-boiled egg on top, then we browse the adjacent food and craft open-air market.  After lunch Mom opts again for a nap and I go storming off up the hill to Marimekko, drawn irresistibly by the SALE 40% sign I had spotted earlier. I admire Finnish design in all its maifestations, purchase a few gifts, and amble down the warm sunny tree-lined streets full of mimes, street musicians, outdoor diners – it is like Paris without the horns and humidity.  I step into a shop to price their postcards, step out again without buying and the day is transformed.  It is pouring rain – I mean a real gully-washer – gutters overflowing, street flooded, rain-spouts fountaining… everyone is laughing at being so caught by surprise.

Luckier than some, I am wearing my nearly-waterproof windbreaker (only because it had a nice pocket for the camera) so I raise the hood, cover my purse with the Marimekko bag, and make a dash for the boat.  Fortunately I am not very far from the harbor, and there are a couple of covered arcades to shelter in.  I make it through the customs center and wait on the porch looking at the ship with a couple of other soggy but smiling passengers until a helpful and vigilant sprite from the ship spots us and comes over with a couple of huge umbrellas – so of course the deluge stops as suddenly as it began.

Tonight is Formal Night and the Captain’s Cocktail Party, so I shed my wet clothes and we dress for the occation, then go for tea in the Panorama lounge.  As we linger over our finger sandwiches, cookies, and mini-pastries, a couple scurries in from the outside promenade-  it is pouring rain again.   We retreat to our room to watch the lightning and the rain bouncing off the balcony railing.

This first evening shows off the crew:  first the cocktail party and introductions, then a full restaurant where we shared our table gregariously, then  a Musical Extravaganza –  an all-white Motown show, complete with feather boas and choreographed dance moves – I was remembering seeing the Temptations in Las Vegas years back. I talked with “Duke” , the tenor, afterward;  he said the group were somewhat limited in their dancing due to the movement of the boat. I thought “yeah, right” but now that I am typing in the quiet of my cabin I am aware of the shifting basis of the boat world I am on.

[Note: Turns out Duke Zoran has written his own blog posts about this trip – Check it out!]

Tomorrow: Stockholm and the Swedes!

To Russia with Mom: Day Five : Safely aboard The Cruise Ship

At the boat – Silversea Cruises Silver Whisper – a different world.  A trio of beige-shirted porters materialized as soon as our driver had unloaded our three suitcases – I had put the Silversea tags on before leaving the hotel.  Whish!  A wheelchair appeared and Mom was enthroned. Poof!  Our luggage had disappeared, to reappear magically in our suite after our lung. Kowabunga! We were through customs, checked into our rooms, and sitting down for lunch in the Panorama Lounge. We had been “welcome aboard”ed so many times our heads were spinning.

Settling in on the ship

Maybe that is what prompted Mom’s  bout with indigestion after lunch.  Or maybe it was the rich dinner last night, skimpy breakfast this AM, dessert-first lunch today – who knows.    She skipped the “Introduction to Helsinki” Lecture, rested, and was able to put down a ridiculous meal of strip steak, Potatos William, asparagus, plus petits fours and some berry shortcake in the evening– nothing I could say in favor of a simple meal would dissuade her.

I treated myself to a martini to celebrate our arrival on the ship, and must  say it did lead to a certain feeling of exaltation afterward – the ship is beautiful, strung with lights, and from the Observation Deck on the 10th level you can see the spire of Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral at the Admiralty, plus several other gilded domes, brilliant in the last light despite sweeps of rain falling from storm clouds all around the horizon.

Mom in bed, me at the computer, I heard bangs outside – looked up – the skies had cleared, sunset was happening – and so were fireworks across the bridge just off shore from the Admiralty – tried to take pix but could not judge digital camera’s hang time. After first spate finished, heard another barrage starting from another bridge further down the river – all spires and rooftops gleaming with the fresh rain and setting sun – too wonderful!

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