Thursday, September 29, 2011

Catching Up...

The last few weeks went by in a whirlwind. During that period we took a two week cruise in the Baltic region, trans Atlantic flights to Holland and back, packing up from our summer on the boat, and then closing it up involving a myriad of operational chores best left unsaid and then driving the 1,250 miles home, 800 miles on the 2nd day -- made pleasurable by Stephen King's audio edition of On Writing read by the author himself -- arriving to assess all the work to be done in and around the house, particularly on the tropical overgrowth of landscaping, courtesy of the humid Florida summers.

The ports we visited deserve their own commentary and as I pull together photos another posting with a description of the ports will be forthcoming, but a few preliminary words on the cruise itself. We've taken many and of course beside the interesting ports, ship life and days at sea are high points to me. We try to confine our cruises to the "smaller" ships, in this case the MS Rotterdam. This particular ship accommodated "merely" 1,380 passengers on this trip, her displacement at 61,849 tons. We had been on this ship once before, almost ten years ago, through the Panama Canal. She is still an elegant ship, although refitting and updating will be needed soon.

Our cruise covered 2,998 miles (remarkable as I did not realize the region was so large). We arrived in Amsterdam after the fastest trans-Atlantic flight I've ever been on as the tail winds were over 100 miles per hour, only five hours from JFK. They served drinks and then dinner shortly after departing, turned off the lights for this "overnight" flight and it seemed as if only a half hour went by before they were turning on the lights for breakfast. At one point our air speed was 720 miles per hour. I felt like Chuck Yeager about to break the sound barrier. I hadn't flown KLM in some time, a very decent airline, but well worth the few dollars to upgrade to "economy comfort" seats.

We arrived in Amsterdam very early in the morning and had to wait several totally disorganized hours for the pre-arranged bus connection we had made through Holland America to finally depart for Rotterdam where our ship awaited. One would think that at least this part of the trip would be under control -- after all HA has done this before.

The cruise took us to Copenhagen, Warnamunde (Berlin's nearest port), Tallin, St. Petersburg, and Stockholm. We were supposed to go to Helsinki as well, but weather prevented the visit, for reasons I will explain when I write up our port visitations.

Embarking in Rotterdam, our ship life began by locating our cabin (mid ship, Ocean view), and as we live on a boat during the summer, we found it commodious by comparison --including several spacious closets and lots of drawer space!

There are so many things to do, even on a relatively small ship such as this, but our routine was to have a set dining time, a table with three other couples, nice people with whom we could exchange pleasantries about the trip, but politics and related topics were strictly off limits. After dinner most people went to the musical production shows but we discovered a great jazz trio in one of the lounges and became regulars there. Every evening they took requests from the great American songbook, the music we love so much.

The drummer (Seth) and the pianist (Jane) are a married couple who do gigs in Nantucket when they are not traveling on a cruise ship (the bass player was from Spain, hired by the ship, and fit right in). Jane is one of the best jazz pianists I've ever heard on a cruise ship and she plays requests from "lead sheets" or "fake books" which is the way I play, taking the melody line and the chords and improvising (although her skills are head and shoulders above mine). But she does all this from an iPod which has searchable PDFs of thousands of songs. I requested (among many others) the little-played "Cottage for Sale", a rendition we loved having been recorded years before by Julie London. To our amazement, Jane came up with the song immediately...

"A little dream in a castle
With every dream gone
It is lonely and silent
The shades are all drawn
And my heart is heavy
As we gaze upon
A cottage for sale

The lawn we were proud of
Is waving in hay

Our beautiful garden is
Withered away.
Where we planted roses
The weeds seem to say..
A cottage for sale"

Jane's style is so reminiscent of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Her voicings are superb. In fact she played several Bill Evans pieces, including Waltz for Debby. These are not the kind of offerings one normally finds on a cruise ship. More information on Seth and Jane can be found here.

When I am away from everyday life while cruising, particularly the day to day gyrations of the market and politics and my beloved computer, reading becomes a pleasure, interrupted only by port visits, the obligatory meals, and jazz delights. The rest of the world goes by as contact is mostly limited to CNN International on board, a 4 page summary of the New York Times, and, of course, occasional, but very expensive and slow, Internet connections via satellite. Still, I tried to keep up with the baseball scores and the pennant races while on board, and the latest machinations of the approaching presidential election.

While away it seems that President Obama proposed a job-creation, infrastructure-fixing plan, with tax implications for the wealthy, one that was immediately shot down by the Republicans. How one can be so against a more progressive tax structure -- albeit with fixes of loopholes and some of the complexity along the way -- while 46 million Americans are living at the poverty level is beyond me. We had lunch with a woman one day who pontificated that half of Americans don't pay any taxes and that is why we should have a flat tax (very regressive in my mind). Hence, politics and the economy were off limits discussions (for me at least -- no sense on such a trip). However, on board I managed to see parts of the "Republican presidential debates" which were laughable as moderated by Fox, most candidates invoking God and the Constitution as their very own personal, exclusive allies.

So it was no wonder, off with the TV and on to some good reading. The first one I tackled, sort of an underground classic for which I thank my blogger friend, Emily, was J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country. This is written in the tradition of Thomas Hardy, a wonderful tale about a medieval mural of the apocalypse which was painted on the ceiling of a church in the countryside somewhere in England and whitewashed over. The man who is hired to restore the painting, in the process, resurrects his own soul in the bargain. He is separated from his wife, Vinny, and recovering from his experiences during WWI:"The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I'd left off. This is what I need, I thought -- a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won't be a casualty anymore. Well, we live by hope." It is a little gem of a redemptive novel.

From the sublime to the entertaining I picked up another Jonathan Tropper novel, This is Where I Leave You. Here is yet another clever novel by him, the focal point of which is our hero, Judd Foxman, sitting a seven day shiva with his dysfunctional family, as his marriage is falling apart. Tropper is known for his smart witty dialogue and this novel delivers. Although comic, Tropper is an observer of the manners and mores of modern times and I almost think of him as a Jane Austin type, delectable to read, with stinging observations. For example, this is his riotous description of sitting shiva (sat on chairs lower than their visitors) on one particular day: "The parade of weathered flesh continues. Sitting in our shiva chairs, we develop a sad infatuation with the bared legs of our visitors. Some of the men wear pants, and for that we are eternally grateful. But this being late August, we get our fair share of men in shorts, showing off pale, hairless legs with withered calves and thick, raised veins like earthworms trapped beneath their flesh who died burrowing their way out. The more genetically gifted men still show some musculature in the calf and thigh areas, but is more often than not marred by the surgical scars of multiple knee operations or heart bypasses that appropriated veins from the leg. And there's a special place in shiva hell reserved for men in sandals, their cracked, hardened toenails, dark with fungus, proudly on display. The women are more of a mixed bag. Some of them have managed to hold it together, but on others, skin hangs loosely off the bone, crinkled like cellophane, ankles disappear beneath mounds of flesh; and spider veins stretch out like bruises just below the skin. there really should be a dress code." A laugh a minute because it is so true.

My final novel for the cruise was one I've been saving for years for the right moment, a mass market paperback edition, small and portable, although some 500 pages, so ideal for carrying on a trip -- Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline. I've read most of Conroy and when he writes autobiographical material, he is at his best. I'm sure many of the episodes he chronicles in this book, one about a boy coming of age in a military college in Charleston, SC, come right out of his own life experiences. It is powerful and fast-moving, a page turner, beautifully written, Conroy being one of our most lyrical writers today. It is about the true meaning of honor, a painful lesson our protagonist, Will McLean, learns in the real world. Will is not from the elite society of Charleston as are some of his classmates. He is on scholarship as the point guard on the basketball team, as was Conroy himself was when he went to school. Although Conroy's autobiographical My Losing Season primarily deals with that subject (basketball), well worth reading, this novel devotes only a dozen or so pages to the topic, but perhaps the most vivid, accurate ones I've ever read about playing the game. Still, it is the beauty of his writing that glued me to the pages of this novel: "The city of Charleston, in the green feathery modesty of its palms, in the certitude of its style, in the economy and stringency of its lines, and the serenity of its mansions South of Broad Street, is a feast for the human eye. But to me, Charleston is a dark city, a melancholy city, whose severe covenants and secrets are as powerful and beguiling as its elegance, whose demons dance their alley dances and compose their malign hymns to the far side of the moon I cannot see. I studied those demons closely once, and they helped kill off the boy in me."

Thanks to these three novels, the jazz trio, my ship time was spent in good company (and with Ann of course). Ann wrote a detailed email to her friends about our trip, describing each port, and I am going to draw heavily from her observations when I get around to editing and selecting photographs, as well as adding my own thoughts.

But I will say one thing as a teaser for a future piece. The high point was St. Petersburg where we hired a private guide for two ten hour days. One cannot tour Russia without a Visa or a registered travel guide (or one of the ship's bus tours, which we did not want to do). Our guide turned out to be as stunningly beautiful as she was knowledgeable, a graduate of St. Petersburg University, with a degree in Art History, and with excellent English skills. Each place of visit was accompanied by her knowledgeable narrative. It started with an early morning visit to the Peterhof Palace, with its lush gardens and magnificent furnishings, these two exterior photos hardly do it justice, but, as I said, this is merely foreshadowing of a more detailed account in a later entry.