Showing posts with label Brooklyn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brooklyn. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Crow Fair and Desperate Characters

One of the pleasures on the boat is having some time to read.   Thomas McGuane’s short story collection, Crow Fair impressed me, reading one short story each evening to completion.  He is a gifted writer and although Montana is his focus and thus the western experience of writers such as Wallace Stegner and Raymond Carver encroach, there are also palettes of Updike and Cheever.  His characters are universal, flawed, sometimes funny, but fundamentally ones you identify or sympathize with, real people in stories that are so natural the denouement suddenly seizes you.  Above all, survival, emotionally as well as physically, is a leitmotif threaded in these stories.  Now I fully understand his close friendship with Jim Harrison.

His story Hubcaps has an exposition that is reminiscent of a Cheever story….By late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having their first cocktails.  His mother gave hers some thought, looking upon it as a special treat, while his father served himself a ‘stiff one’ in a more matter-of-fact way, his every movement expressing a conviction that he had a right to this stuff, no matter how disagreeable or lugubrious or romantic it might soon make him….Owen’s mother held her drink between the tips of her fingers; his father held it in his fist.  Owen could see solemnity descend on his father’s brow with the first sip, while his mother often looked apprehensive about the possible hysteria to come.

On a Dirt Road is particularly Carver-like. Ann and the protagonist “need new friends.” A couple moves in a home down the dirt road street where two cars cannot pass, so they see their new neighbors in such a mode neither acknowledging the other. Ann wants to have dinner with the Clearys, old friends, of which our protagonist has tired. Ann says she'll go alone with them to a local pizza joint. Off she goes and our protagonist decides to go meet the new neighbors who turn out to have “issues.”  Nonetheless on the spur of the moment he invites them to go to the pizza place to surprise his wife and the Clearys. The surprise is on him.

In A Long View to the West a man is caring for his dying father who is in the habit of telling or I should say retelling the same stories.  Clay asks his father how he feels about dying, the reply being ‘How should I know? I've never done it before.’  This is when he realizes that he is more frightened than his Dad, also realizing that he needs those stories.

Motherlode is about a “cattle geneticist” who gets caught up in a dangerous scam, way beyond his level of expertise, and he pays the consequences.  The suspense is so carefully built by McGuane that the reader is caught unawares at the end of the story.

Prairie Girl is about a woman who rises from “Butt Hut,” a brothel to bank president, by marrying a gay man from the banking family, having a child by him, and raising the boy as the true love of her life. Peter always wonders about his Mom, never realizing the truth.

River Camp incorporates all the writer’s themes, the role of nature in our insignificant lives, dysfunctional relationships, and the danger that lurks just below the surface because of something which is greater than ourselves.  Two old friends, sometimes adversaries, book a strange guide to lead them on a camping trip in the wilderness, learning more about each, their wives, and then the brutal truth about the guide and what nature has in store for them.

The title story Crow Fair concerns two brothers who learn that their dying mother, suffering from dementia, had a long affair with a Crow Chief who they set out to find. In so doing, the brothers go their separate ways.

Idiosyncratic, funny and sad at the same time, and beautifully written, McGuane tugs at the reader’s heart with simple truths about life.  I’ve mentioned only a few of the stories.  These stories, like Cheever’s and Carver’s deserve to be reread.

Now on to an outstanding novel. Thanks to Jonathan Franzen’s unremitting praise of a “forgotten novel,” I picked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters before leaving for the boat.  Here is yet another American classic I could put in the same class as John Williams’ Stoner which was written only five years earlier (Stoner 1965; Desperate Characters 1970).  Those were turbulent years and each novel deals with the turmoil in subtle ways, but mostly through relationships.  Each is written in absolutely exquisite, compact prose. 

Fox’s novel has a special familiarity to me as it is set in Brooklyn, near Brooklyn Heights in the late 1960s, my last years in the exact same place.  Her descriptions of the decadence of New York City are real as it was written at the time when it was experienced.  This is juxtaposed to the decay of the inner lives of the two main characters, Sophie and Otto Bentwood.  They are a childless couple, in their early 40s, living in the slowly gentrified neighborhood bordering Brooklyn Heights.  They also have a Mercedes and a house on Long Island with a barn.  They should be happy, right?

Early in the novel, to Otto’s displeasure, Sophie feeds a feral cat who suddenly lashes out at Sophie, sinking its teeth in her hand.  The incident is the undercurrent of the entire novel as the reader is left wondering whether her decision to not immediately seek medical attention will have serious consequences.  In this regard it is a novel of suspense.  Otto advises that she do so, although, interestingly, he is not absolutely insistent. 

Otto is breaking up with his law partner, Charlie Russel, who has his own marriage difficulties. However these partners, friends from college have gone their separate ways professionally.  But the plot is secondary to the lapidary writing, sentences, paragraphs you just find yourself dwelling over.

When the cat first appears, ramming its head against the glass door, Otto explains “’Ugly Bastard!’ The cat looked at him, then its eyes flicked away.  The house felt powerfully solid to him; the sense of that solidity was like a hand placed firmly in the small of his back.  Across the yard, past the cat’s agitated movements, he saw the rear windows of the houses on the slum street.  Some windows had rags tacked across them, other, sheets of transparent plastic.  From the sill of one, a blue blanket dangled.

When Otto is out of sight, Sophie defies him by feeding the cat, even petting the cat as she serves up some milk.  The cat’s back rose convulsively to press against her hand.  She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.

What struck me was that “friendly human touch” is absent from her marriage and that she suppressed her cry because of Otto being nearby.  Here is a marriage in crisis.

Fox is one of these rare writers who can capture the essence of a person in few words.  Here is her description of one of their friends, a psychiatrist, Myron Holstein who caters to writers and painters:  He didn’t know a thing about her, not even after ten years, but she loved the air of knowingness; the flattery that didn’t obligate her.  And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close-fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume.  He wasn’t a seducer.  He was remote.  He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.

That last sentence reminds me of Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns or George Barker’s poem To My Mother: “She is a procession no one can follow after / But be like a little dog following a brass band.”

It’s a stalemate relationship between Otto and Sophie.  He refuses to answer the telephone.  She asks, why? “Because I never hear anything on it that I want to hear any more.”  They were both standing rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom.  Then he asked her directly why she was angry.  She said she wasn’t angry at all; it was just so tiresome of him to indulge himself about the telephone, to stand there so stupidly while it rang, to force her to do it.  How many of us have played the same tug of war with our spouses?

As a woman in her early 40’s, Sophie’s body is changing.  It comes somewhat as a shock to her:  Her body was not her own any more, but had taken off in some direction of its own.  In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end, of some pleasure.  She could not eat and drink the way she once had.  Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible.  She had only realized that one was old for a long time.  Old for a long time, how familiar!  Brilliant writing!

As a student I once spent a long time in the emergency room waiting area of the Brooklyn Hospital.  Note how Fox’s sense of realism conjures up such a room in the late 1960s.  Her writing brings alive an experience I had more than 50 years ago: It was like a bus station, an abandoned lot, the aisles in the coaches of the old B & O trains, subway platforms, police stations. It combined the transient quality, the disheveled atmosphere of a public terminal with the immediately apprehended terror of a way station to disaster.  It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined three walls.  It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays.  On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef.  There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes – cleaning fluids embedded in fabric and blooming horridly in the warm sweetish air, picking at the nostrils like thorns – all the exudations of human flesh, a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind.

Yet the heart of the novel is a philosophical question as “desperate characters” seek meaning in a hostile universe, a snapshot of New York City when it reached its nadir in the late 1960s.  As Franzen asks in his introduction: “What is the point of meaning – especially literary meaning – in a rabid modern world?  Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed?”  Striving for the answer, Franzen has read and taught the novel many times.

John Williams’ Stoner has been called “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is in the same league. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Visiting the Past to See the Future

I just finished reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters which is set in Brooklyn in the late 1960s.  More on that in another entry whenever I can get to it, but the novel  unfolds not only in the Borough of my past, Brooklyn, but mostly bordering the downtown section which is my old home and haunt, beginning with my student days at Long Island University.  For years my friend Bruce and I have talked about revisiting the university together as Alumni, but we’ve never been able to coordinate the days.  He’s not around the corner, living in Massachusetts so I forgive him.  But as I closed the Fox book last Monday the urge was strong to revisit and I was compelled to act on the urge as planning never seems to go right so I turned to Ann and asked her whether she wants to go with me the next day.  Why not give me a little advance notice (she had an appointment) she asked, but she promptly cancelled that appointment, agreeing to join me on my impromptu adventure.  I emailed my son Jonathan to ask whether he might want to meet us at Juniors in downtown Brooklyn that day for lunch (revisiting would not be complete without sitting in that landmark once again).

He was surprised by our plans and asked whether we’d be driving in.  No, I said, Metro North to Grand Central and then the IRT #5 train to Nevins Street – needed to experience it all (after all I commuted to the school by subway from Queens for the first semester in 1960).  We’re crazy he said, too much to negotiate, too many stairs, the jostling crowds, etc.  Crazy I am I guess but the trip to and from was as meaningful as the visit itself, and less stress than driving and quicker too.  All part of the “fun.”

So we emerged from the Nevins Street station and were greeted by a Brooklyn I hardly recognized.  Looking east and west on Flatbush Avenue revealed a skyline of a different place although some of the same tired buildings were standing.  I seem to remember a Bickford’s (or was it a Horn & Hardart?) there, long gone.  Walking west towards the Manhattan Bridge there was the LIU I remembered, the old Brooklyn Paramount building and adjacent Metcalf Hall where all of our classrooms were.

The door to the Paramount was open, a guard manning the desk, so we went in and showed him my “student ID card” – the last one I carried during the 1963-64 semester year. 

He looked at it in disbelief as If I was a Martian but good naturedly directed us to the Admissions Office.  As I student I worked there part-time, processing applications and I worked in the library as well.  The Admissions office is essentially in the same place, but the entrance is no longer on Flatbush, but inside the campus gates so we entered there and I presented my ID card to the receptionist. “Oh my God,” was her response.  “I have to show this to the Associate Director,” which she did. 

We were told there is a tour at 2 PM so before lunch we had some time on our own to visit my old dormitory.  Again, my card was greeted by disbelief but that allowed me to look around at the cafeteria and the student lounge there, all changed of course.  I told the guard at reception – pointing at the three elevators – that when I lived there they were segregated.  “Segregated?” he was obviously surprised by the implication.  Yes, I replied, two of the elevators went to the men’s floors and one was for the women.  “Huh” he said, “there were separate floors for men and women?”  Yes, in the early 60s, that is how it was.  Times have changed.

Then I couldn’t resist getting a photo of myself in front of 175 Willoughby Street, that old apartment house being my second residence after graduating and the one I lived in with our young son, Chris, until I was divorced.  The building has been refurbished and looks better than when I lived there some 50 years ago.  Our apartment had a clear view of the New York City skyline, but that is now blocked by a new apartment house.

So after these two nostalgic visits, off to Juniors.  Same as I remember it, and the same late 50s early 60s music playing, displays of Brooklyn landmarks, in particular the Brooklyn Dodgers, or “dem bums.”  There we met Jonathan who was born long after I left Brooklyn.  As in the past, Juniors serves way too much food but even so we couldn’t resist capping off our lunch with a shared piece of their famous cheesecake.  Yum!

So, Jonathan went back to work and we walked back across the street, way too early for the 2pm tour, hoping for a brief private tour.  They were waiting for me. “Here he is!”   

They had already planned a private tour for an “old” alumnus, so were lucky enough that Tiarra, a student admissions assistant, the same position I had, was available to take us around.  The change and additions to the school were striking.

What impressed me most about the LIU of today is its forward-looking, and application-results-oriented strategy, intended to give its students the best opportunities for employment after graduation.  It’s the hands on direction the school has taken, with its life-sciences and entrepreneurship focus as well as the facilities that students now have to maintain their health (what a gym facility!) and their social lives (i.e. social media and the numerous cafés), that really overwhelmed me, facilities which were unimaginable in my time. 

Nonetheless it was nice to see the humanities thriving there as well, including its own theatre (in my day the theatre department produced plays at the Brooklyn Academy of Music).  It was quite a trip down memory lane seeing the old Metcalf building, the Paramount, and my dormitory, but so impressive to see the new campus and its flourishing multicultural student population getting ready for the real world.  I think LIU is really in sync with the times and Brooklyn itself. It’s reinvented itself many times during its nearly 100 years in the Borough, a resilient survivor and innovator in the competitive world of higher education.   

The facilities as I noted are phenomenal.  A new gym, Olympic size swimming pool and endless exercise machines beckon.   

I was wondering about the need for a second gym but Tiarra said the old Paramount (above) was going to be restored to its former splendor in conjunction with the Barclay’s Center as a theatre for events, the students getting discounts.  Smart strategy for income methinks, sort of functioning as an endowment for the university.

Still the past has not been forgotten as the gym pays tribute to athletes of years gone by.  I liked the billboard sized poster of some of the basketball stars I saw play, including Ed “Cornflakes” Johnson, Luther Green, and Albie Grant.  Albie was a small center / power forward who I grew close to in my senior year.  A wonderful person  -- a great optimistic personality – who died way too early in life.  To watch him play was among the more significant moments in LIU athletic history.

After a couple hours of touring, we were beat, but happy, and headed back to the IRT just as the #5 train pulled in, nearly full but we managed a seat until Grand Central, and then back “home” to our boat.  I’m proud to be a LIU graduate, a school which has managed to adapt to and change with the times, giving its students an opportunity to succeed in the 21st century world, as I like to think I did in the 20th.

I’ve written several pieces about my Brooklyn years in this blog, but the one which is most relevant to LIU is this link.  Included there is a piece I wrote for Confrontation Magazine about 10 years after graduating.  It still says it all about my experience then, and for convenience sake I repeat it below.

L.I.U.-My World in the Early'60s

Downtown Brooklyn sandwiched between the placid decade of the 50s and the Vietnam War was not unlike other communities in having a sense of optimism about its future. A thriving commercial center for small merchants, it had major islands in the same sea: the New York Telephone Company headquarters, the Brooklyn Hospital, Abraham and Straus department store, the Fox and Paramount movie theatres, the Board of Education, Fort Greene Park, and Long Island University.

It was September 1960 when I emerged from the DeKalb Avenue subway stop and made my way for the first time to L.I.U. Standing at the comer of Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue, waiting for the light to change, Junior's and the Dime Savings Bank behind me, I faced a drab office building rising above the ornate but faded Brooklyn Paramount movie palace.

Farther behind me was a middle-class Queens community, my universe until this moment: a community of hard-working people imbued with the conviction that all things were possible in this society if one tried hard enough; it was with this sense I was going to college to learn business. But this seeming past eternity of punch ball; the Bungalow Bar man; picture-card trading; piano and guitar lessons; grammar school report cards that included grades for penmanship, neatness and posture; the Bunny Hop, Elvis ("a-wop-bom-a-lu-bop ... "); Ike; and high school (" ... if you don't take Latin, you won't be able to get into college .. ") was possibly fading, for I stood on the border between two lives, two cultures: was my background going to be my future, could I emerge out of this bland and benign landscape into myself? Brooklyn would have much to do with the answer.

Sitting in my first class on the 8th floor, becoming a regular occupant of that same seat, I could see the digital clock on top of the Dime Savings Bank blinking at me. This and another clock on top of the Williamsburg Savings Bank farther up Flatbush Avenue became lighthouses in my Brooklyn experience. When, the following year, I lived in the dormitory, returning late in the evening from a night in Manhattan in a blinding snowstorm, I sensed these silent timepieces watching me scurrying home.

In later years I lived in downtown Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan for a publishing firm, and regularly flew to the mid-west. Coming into LaGuardia Airport, we would sweep over Brooklyn and see the downtown area reaching out to Prospect Park while the fingers of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges bound Brooklyn to Manhattan. Below was the beacon of the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock. Then, as now, I am drawn to that unique community I once called home.

I remember the student union on the ground floor of the small building adjacent to the Paramount building. Smoke hung in the stagnant air, bodies slumped on worn lounge chairs and elbows rested on Formica tables. Nixon versus Kennedy was the subject of heated discussion. These students, mostly from Brooklyn, seemed confident in their belief that politics could remake society. Eventually I found myself caught up in political causes as my apathy of the past waned.

With John F. Kennedy our new President-elect, the campus had a new vibrancy. A professor, delayed by listening to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony in his office, entered the classroom gesticulating those glorious rhythms. One professor challenged us to an exam: think of a question and answer it, the grade being as dependent on the nature of the question as on the answer. Another accepted a twisted pretzel from a student on the school quadrangle and published a poem on the experience.

Meanwhile I moved into the dormitory, severing remaining ties with a prior somnambulistic life. My room faced the front of the campus, with the monolithic slab of a factory that would become the shell of the architecturally renowned Humanities Building to be constructed a short time later. Behind the factory stood downtown Brooklyn, my microcosm of the real world.

The lack of classroom space mandated that the university rent space at Brooklyn Polytechnic, a neighboring institution where some of my classes were held. We made our way there along Myrtle Avenue, the elevator line rumbling over our heads, past furniture stores and shells of buildings. Decay was evident, but it was defiant decay: people stubbornly made their homes and pursued their lives here.

The return trip was frequently along Fulton Street, connecting the City Hall area with Flatbush Avenue and downtown Brooklyn. There, the cacophony of tiny record stores blurted out" ... baby, baby, baby, baby don't you leave me ... " merging with" ... be-bop-a-lu-la, she's my baby ... " The Chinese restaurant on the second floor beckoned, but I moved on toward the Dime Savings Bank, past shoe, appliance, fabric and other stores.

Across from the Dime Savings Bank was McCrory's, which embodied most of the merchant's downtown Brooklyn expectations. Here I was greeted at the door by the aroma of newly manufactured goods mixed with those of different foods cooking in various sections of the store. In the basement was a grocery where we bought food to supplement the fare in the dormitory. Shoppers would scrutinize the merchandise with almost-total seriousness as the IND subway loudspeaker announced, through corridors connecting to McCrory's, a train's arrival.

Opposite Junior's restaurant, then as now the neighborhood's most famous food emporium, was another restaurant, Soloway's, a luncheonette run by a Greek family. Hamburgers sizzled in grease while french fries were bathing in deep fat. Students gathered around most of the tables and at the counter while strains of "Run Around Sue" thumped from the jukebox.

Junior's itself was reserved for special occasions when only the most obscene dessert would suffice. Also, late at night, when we could study no more, some of us went across to Junior's bar to chat with Pete, the bartender, who offered a different education: would Maris hit 60 home runs? Mickey Mantle was the better ballplayer, Pete opined. Pete had a thick neck with a trim gray crew cut. He was a kindly father to us, probably not realizing the important role he played in our student lives.

Manhattan was a short shuttle over the Manhattan Bridge via the BMT, and occasionally we went there. Perhaps on a date, sitting at the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral until dawn to beat the curfew for female residents of the dorm; or to Greenwich Village for a Black Russian or to see a production at Cafe LaMama or on the second floor of Max's Kansas City restaurant, where the Theatre of the Absurd played; but Brooklyn seemed to be all the world we generally needed and that was where we usually stayed. We sat on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and took in the vista of the Brooklyn Bridge, downtown Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and further up, the spire of the Empire State.

During club hours we crowded into the auditorium to hear Malcolm X speak. Or we listened to local political candidates, heated debate overflowing the classroom after the speaker left.

The Cuban Missile crisis brought us back to days when, as schoolchildren, shades were lowered, lights turned out, and we were instructed to get down on our knees below our desks and cover our heads. Our mortality, and civilization's could be ended by design or by caprice. We frantically darted about the dormitory, discussing whether we might soon be drafted.

I remember other areas I did not know until those days in Brooklyn. Working as a receptionist at the Brooklyn Tuberculosis Center several evenings a week, I participated in a too-common side of Brooklyn life: poverty. Sick, helpless people came, seeking assistance. I processed forms and offered reassurance, but felt ineffectual.

As a dormitory counselor I sometime had to accompany students to the emergency room at the Brooklyn Hospital behind the university. I spent a week there myself, with pleurisy, in a ward. The squalor and the human tragedy I witnessed are echoed in the works of Theodore Dreiser which I read in the hospital for a term paper, seeing Frank Cowperwood's lobster and squid locked in deadly combat as symbolic of our struggle with life in this land of Brooklyn.

Next to the hospital was a prison. There, from the upper floors of the dormitory, the prisoners could be seen endlessly marching in circles. The prison was later destroyed to make room for a bigger hospital, the demolition ball pounding the 19th-century slabs into rubble, crushing the infinitely trodden steps in the courtyard.

Walking past the Admissions Office one Friday afternoon, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

I had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

With the advent of these acts, in particular as the Vietnam War encroached on all our lives, I knew the life I had known in Brooklyn could not remain the same. What changed, some years later, was often for the better for me. But whatever the benefits and the sad moments, I shall remember Brooklyn most as the place that allowed me to change into myself.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Europe to NYC Cruise


This was our fourth crossing of the Atlantic by ship.  The first was an irresistible opportunity to cross one way on the QE2 and fly home, all for the price of one, but it was 1977 when a "crossing" was just that, pure and simple, NY to Le Havre.  The difference between the old ocean liners and a cruise ship is the former was built for transportation and the latter is more a destination onto itself, with visits to various ports.  The ocean liners were built for speed, the QE2 routinely cruising at 28 plus knots whereas our recent crossing in the North Atlantic on the Emerald Princess was considerably slower, even at top cruising speed of about 20 knots.

Our QE2 crossing was in the late Fall, also in the North Atlantic, so we expected some rough weather.  Although the QE2 was stabilized, it could diminish the roll by only 60% vs. 80% of the more modern cruise ships.  Pitching was evident in both ships, but I think the QE2, with her sleek lines, took head seas better.  The Emerald Princess looked like a rectangular bathtub to me, its stern loaded with tons of balconies.  Different designs for different purposes. 

The Emerald Princess is the first Princess cruise we've ever taken and the largest ship we've been on.  It was the itinerary and the timing of the cruise which dictated our choice, being able to pack up our own boat, and our SUV, driving it to our niece's in Queens, leaving the car and stuff from the boat, taking our suitcases for the cruise and departing from JFK, a one way flight as the ship was returning us to NYC.  It was also our first flight on Icelandic Air which was surprisingly comfortable and on a spick and span plane, with a brief layover at Reykjavik airport, modern and comfortable as well, with all possible amenities.

Our arrival in Copenhagen went flawlessly, getting our pared down luggage, being met by Princess representatives and promptly whisked onto a bus.  At the pier we orderly and efficiently boarded the Emerald Princess, 113 thousand tons, an overall length of more than three football fields, a passenger capacity of 3,573 and a crew of 1,227.   

Having never been on such a large ship (although we have been on more than twenty), I dreaded the consequences of dealing with crowds, but Princess did good work managing the issue, at meal times and disembarkation and embarkation at the various ports.

Since we arrived only hours before sail away, there was little opportunity to explore the city further and, instead, viewed the harbor activities from our balcony. Also, jet lag was already setting in and by 10:00 PM, after "anytime dining", we were in bed.  Meanwhile, the ship set a northerly course toward Oslo, 265 nautical miles, cruising in relatively calm seas at 18.5 knots.  In the early morning hours, the Norwegian pilot boat guided the ship through the 20 miles of the Oslo Fjorden.

Knowing the size of the ship, many months in advance Ann cleverly and arduously planned only private tours.  I had sworn off tours arranged by the ship, ones which typically herd 50 or more people onto large buses after having to wait in a public venue on the ship for all to congregate.  Between getting on and off the buses, half the time is wasted.

Although our first tour was to be a private one as soon as we arrived in Oslo, a three hour walking tour with a photographer/tour guide (who we highly recommend: Rami Kafarov -, Ann also arranged private tours at two other destinations through her activities on Cruise Critic (one for 6 people and the other for 16) and we participated in someone else's Cruise Critic arranged tour (for 18) in Iceland.  These smaller tours cover more territory, with more information, at half the price typically of ship-arranged tours.  

We disembarked in Oslo to meet Rami, with only the instructions to turn right and look for a blue Toyota. This was somewhat challenging as every parking area we walked past failed to meet with success.  I insisted he must have meant making a right after walking to the bow of the ship whereas we were walking past the stern.  Ann convinced me to go a little further and suddenly a blue Toyota swerved around, coming from the other direction, and it was our guide.  How did he recognize us?  He had Googled Ann and saw her photograph!  We thought that was very enterprising of him.
Once we were in his car, we had a brief city tour but then drove off to Frogner Park before the tour buses arrived en masse. There we were treated to a sculpture display in Vigeland Park like none other we've ever seen, the cycle of life laid bare by 212 outdoor sculptures conceived by Gustav Vigeland in 1907 but not completed until the early 1960's, 20 years after his death.  It is the world largest sculpture park designed and created by a single artist. These sculptures are in granite and bronze and they are unique in their individuality and as a composite.

However, it was there that the rains and wind began, not really letting up as we returned for our walking tour of the Akershus Fortress.  Rami was going to leave us at the National Museum and we were going to tour on our own, as well as the nautical museum, and return to the ship later, but nature had other plans. We were soaked and asked him to return us and alas, poor weather spoiled our afternoon.   Nonetheless, Vigeland Park, alone, made Oslo one of the high points of our trip.  And kudos to the Norwegians for developing hydropower, and providing electrical charging stations at convenient places.  So we returned to the ship and had a late lunch.  Before the ship departed, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun came out but by then it was too late to explore Oslo any further.  Timing is everything.
Weather interceded again as we found a notice that tropical storm Leslie and hurricane Michael were converging in the North Atlantic and to beat the storm the captain had chosen to bypass our 2nd port stop in Norway,  Kristiansand,  which I had looked forward to for some ideal photo ops.  Instead, we proceeded the 762 nautical miles directly to Greenock, Scotland.  Even so, we were cautioned that the following day at sea could be rough, which it was as the wind built to Beaufort force 8 with 12 to 15 foot seas.  Alas, a big ship does not mean it is more seaworthy as during that night the ship lunged and pitched and rolled and banged.  Although the movement doesn't bother me the noise kept me up for a part of the night.

The following day I noted a number of North Sea oil rigs, mammoth platforms rising in the sea.

One of the private tours Ann arranged was in Greenock, Scotland, with only 6 passengers.  Again we had to locate our driver at the pier, David, who arrived wearing a traditional Scottish kilt.  David had a dry sense of humor and of course the Scottish Sean Connery accent.  When Ann audaciously asked David what he was wearing under his kilt (having heard some men wear nothing) he replied:  "that's for me to know and for you to find out!"
Our first stop was in the little town of Luss where we toured the current Luss Parish Church, built in 1875 but where church services were held on that very spot for 1500 years, right on the banks of Loch Lomond!  The ceiling was constructed to resemble the inverted hull of a ship. As we traveled around parts of Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater loch/lake in Great Britain, we were awed by the magnificent rolling countryside of the Highlands.
However, the indisputable highlight of our tour through this beautiful country was visiting Inveraray Castle, which sits on the western shore of Loch Fyne and is the ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll who now live there with their young family in one wing of the castle. 

Ann asked if they were in residence on the day we were visiting and was told the Duke was away on business, but the Duchess frequently can be seen in the gift shop and sure enough we met the strikingly tall, young and loquacious Duchess of Argyll.   Naturally, she and Ann hit it off and in conversation, Her Grace revealed that three weeks ago, our favorite BBC production, Downton Abby, was there with cast and crew having filmed their Xmas special in several rooms of the Castle.  We inquired about the connection and she explained the Downton family was visiting their Scottish relations for the holidays.  Ann and she chatted for another few moments; and naturally there was no thought of leaving without purchasing a beautiful shawl from Her Grace before we left!

Wind - rain – sun - clouds every form of weather in Scotland seemed to present itself that day, but luckily little rain, although the wind gusts were considerable and we actually saw someone blown over by the wind.  This picture of Ann and David clearly shows the consequences of the wind.

That night the ship set course through the Irish Sea onto Dublin, some 180 nautical miles of relatively calm seas even though windy. Dublin was going to be a hop on hop off bus tour for us, an independent walk about town, but the bus we boarded became more and more crowded, to the point of everyone standing in the isles with hardly a view out any window.  What good is that, especially as Trinity college and its environs was to be our main focus, and everything is easily walkable. 

Out of the corner of my eye I spied "The Bank" going by, originally a bank of course but now a fine Irish restaurant, one of the best pubs in Dublin we had heard.  So we managed to get off the bus and make our way back to The Bank.  Just what we needed, more food, but how can one resist such a place?  And an added bonus, Wifi!  There, Ann had fish and chips like none other she's ever had, lightly battered with the freshest cod, while I had traditional bangers and mashed potatoes.  Ann washed hers down with a pint of Irish ale. And we both gratefully caught up with our emails from back home.

A trip to the men's room revealed that it was in the old bank vault!  From The Bank's brochure: "The interior, which was once the main banking hall, is a stunning example of merchant power and patronage displaying an extraordinary ornate setting, stained glass ceiling, mosaic tiled floors and spectacular hand carved plasterwork and cornicing...Note the huge oak doors and rich ambiance of the mahogany that was shipped specifically for this project from the furthest outposts of the empire."  Indeed, one of the jewels of 1895 Victorian architecture. 

An added bonus aside from the great food and extraordinary ambiance is being able to view an exact replica from The Book of Kells, the illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, written in the 9th century during the Viking invasions, and considered Ireland’s National Treasure.  The original is housed just nearby in The Old Library at Trinity College.  Regrettably, the line was a mile long to get in, so we toured around the campus on our own, noticing that a movie was being filmed in this beautiful setting, right in the heart of Dublin.

No trip would be complete without a shopping trip on Grafton Street where Ann managed to find a "Marks & Spencer” (Marks & Sparks to locals) where she has been purchasing (among many things) her night gowns all her adult life (in the London M&S) since 1963!  They never seem to wear out and she swears by them. No, she reminded me, she doesn’t still have them dating back almost 50 years!! So I was left to wander Grafton and enjoy the street entertainment.  We walked around Dublin and then grabbed a bus back to the ship, passing Number One Merrion Square, the former childhood home of the writer Oscar Wilde. 

Early the next morning the ship passed the Isle of Man and set a northerly course, entering the Belfast Lough and we prepared for another private tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland, one Ann organized for 16 people. This was an all day excursion along the beautiful Glens of Antrim coast, the luscious hills of Ireland exactly as I had imagined from movies and picture books.  Our tour guide, Tom, in his Inner-city Belfast accent, at times a little difficult to understand, tried to explain the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland, one which is far more cultural than religious.  Things are on the mend he thinks and I remember him saying that they feared violence on Sept. 29th where there were going to be demonstrations commemorating the signing of Ulster covenant in 1912, which opposed Irish home rule. Thankfully, it came off peacefully.

First stop was at the seaside town of Carnlough which, with its fishing boats and small harbor, made for a nice photo op.  The adjacent hill rolled down to the sea.

Tom encouraged all of us to take the ambitious walk across the famous Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, which links the mainland to the island of Carrickarede, a span of about 65 feet but 100 feet above fomenting waters from the sea below.  Few on the bus wanted to take the walk over the bridge.   
It's not for the faint of heart (or the old or infirm), but Ann and I decided to try, until nearing the rocky, winding passage down to the bridge itself, Ann saw the steep and slippery steps, first down, then up, and down yet again to a rickety rope bridge above the crashing waters, so she turned back, the knees were not going to make it. 
Onward I went.  No more than 8 on the bridge going “one way” at a time, but the mostly younger tourists challenged the bridge (why not jump up and down a little?) - this while I'm trying to hold onto the rope and balance my camera in the other hand.  This exciting experience, in spite of the physical endurance needed to get there and get back (actually crossing the bridge was the least of the problems), was a high point of my day.

A stop at Bushmills Irish Whiskey distillery, the oldest working distillery in County Antrim, resulted in a lunch of Irish stew for me and some hearty soup for Ann, a welcome respite.

Our next stop: The famous Giant’s Causeway, an area of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns created from centuries old volcanic eruptions. I wondered whether the Superman movie got its idea of Superman's retreat from the columns. Although showery, some intrepid tourists climbed these columns making one wonder how many people are injured each year recklessly clamoring over these sharp stone outcroppings.  (Actually, a woman injured herself slipping from one of the columns as we were boarding the bus back to the visitor's center.)

The night after we left Belfast- as soon as we were out of the lee of the Irish coast -- we again had some rough seas, the stern being lifted and crashing back down.  We were at sea the following day, and Ann settled into a routine of morning and afternoon Mah Jongg games with a group she helped to organize on the ship and as we had many sea days ahead of us, I settled down on reading the novels I brought for the trip.  More on those later. 

Our day in Reykjavik, Iceland was spectacular -- an all day "golden circle" tour on a small bus enabled us to see the major sites.  The first thing I noticed was the air -- pure oxygen it seemed to me.  Bob was our tour guide, an American who became an Icelander, having married a "native."  He served in the Air Force in Iceland and understandably fell in love with the country.  I think of Iceland as being a cross between Hawaii and Alaska, volcanic like Hawaii, but with glaciers and snowcapped mountains.  The moon probably looks a little like parts of Iceland. Still the climate is temperate in the lower regions.  And throw in a few spectacular waterfalls and active geysers for good measure -- so a little bit of Niagara Falls and Yellowstone Park as well!

Most impressive is their development and utilization of geothermal energy which offers clean, efficient energy throughout the country, more than enough energy to heat their water and produce their electricity.  If only it could be exported!  I think Bob mentioned his electricity bill for his home -- all of its heating and hot water and electricity -- was about $30 a month!  Imagine.

I was fascinated by the power stations and the piping and the steam rising from recently tapped geothermal pools.

The Thingvellir National Park is the location of the "Althing" -- the site of the oldest parliament gathering on earth, founded in 930 AD.  And it is here one can view the valley between the American and Eurasian plates -- a continental divide and see deep fissures in the ground.  The scenes here are other worldly.

Like Old Faithful, Iceland's Strokkur Geyser is predictable and thus a little patience is rewarded with a spectacular blow off.  While we were there, there was a double blow-off which our tour guide remarked was very unusual.  The smell of sulfur permeated the air. Check out this brief video:

The Gullfuss Waterfall has been called a "little Niagara" although massive in its own right.  We were a good distance from the falls but the spray reached out everywhere.

The tour lasted until 10 PM.  We were hoping to stay up to see the possible northern lights, but by the time the ship departed near midnight, our all day tour had us stumbling back into bed and asleep.  Iceland was a favorite stop and we were looking forward to Greenland but when we returned to the ship we were notified that 40 knot winds, high seas, and even icebergs were expected in the area. This naturally dictated that those plans be aborted, more effects from Tropical Storm Leslie and Hurricane Michael that had been meandering about. The ship's Captain, Commodore Giuseppe Romano, made the decision to cancel and substitute the ports of St. John's, Newfoundland and then St. John, New Brunswick.  We had never been to the former and although we had previously visited the latter, both destinations were welcome ports of call on the way back to New York City.

We now had three full sea days ahead of us as the next port was 1,431 nautical miles from Reykjavik, so it was during that time that I knocked off the first two books that I brought with me, Louis Begley's About Schmidt and the sequel, Schmidt Delivered.  I might as well discuss all four novels I read at this point although I will not go into any great detail as the focus of this entry is our trip.

I decided to read the first two books based on the reviews of Begley's recently published Schmidt Steps Back which I have on order.  I'll probably discuss all three in a later entry, but the appeal of these books, to me, is similar to the one that made Updike's Rabbit novels fascinating -- relevancy to the phases of my own life as I have aged.  Like Updike, Begley follows a character through some of those phases, although Begley starts with the character already at the age of 60 (he's 78 in the third novel).

Another book I read on the trip, my fourth actually, was Jonathan Tropper's Plan B, Tropper's first novel.  Tropper and Begley serve as perfect bookends, Tropper's novel concerns his characters angst about turning 30.  After reading the first two Begley books, I did not think I could quickly decompress to Tropper (being familiar with Tropper's other works, having read, I think at this point, all of them).  I needed a work to clear the palette so I rummaged around the ship's library and found one of the few Anita Shreve novels I haven't read, A Change in Altitude.  This turned out to be the perfect antidote even though I thought it was not up to Shreve's usual work.  The characters seemed to be going through the motions and I just could not connect.  Maybe it is because she wrote it in the traditional third person, although I found the setting, Kenya, interesting in its own right, along with her description of being an ex-pat in that area.  Obviously Shreve lived there earlier in her life.  But as I said, going from Begley to Tropper without a stop in between seemed impossible to me.

It is not only because of the subject matter, 60 something vs. 30 something, but the style of writing as well.  Begley writes with a preponderance of seriousness, a style befitting his legal background.  In fact, some of the narrative almost reads like a legal brief, but a well-written one.  Tropper on the other hand writes with a breezy abandonment, with humor lurking in every corner.  No sense recounting the plot -- very similar to his other works, neurotic guy trying to grow up, having to deal with friends going through similar anxiety and family reproach.  Too bad I will not be around when Tropper reaches Begley's age, when he too can look in a rear view mirror, life on the path of deceleration rather than the buoyantly expectant promises of the future expressed in his novels.  But he (Tropper) and Begley are both good writers within their own genus, and I'm grateful to have literary "friends" such as them (and Shreve too) in my reading life.

So, sea days were devoted to those four novels, working out perfectly with the time I had.  I also attended several lectures on the ship, particularly those about the workings of the vessel (for instance, it carries 3,200 tons of fuel and the ship gets 50 feet to the gallon!) and the history of ocean crossings, including the Titanic tragedy and equally interesting, the building of the SS France which became the SS Norway, one of the last true ocean liners.

The 1,431 nautical miles to St. John's, Newfoundland followed a southwesterly track in unusually calm seas.  I was able to sit out on our balcony in total quiet most days and sufficient warmth to read.  We arrived at St. John's at about 7:00 am and later in the morning disembarked to be greeted by the traditional Newfoundland dog, more than 100 lbs, replete with webbed feet and a water-resistant coat, ideal for the climate.  The dog also likes to slobber a little (well, lots), but that's OK -- we're dog people!

Ann and I found a cab to take us up to the site I was anxious to visit:  Signal Hill, famous for several reasons, but, in my mind, most notable as this is where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless transmission in 1901.  Ironically, Marconi was supposed to have been booked on the Titanic but had to cancel to be in NYC on important business days earlier and it was his persistence with his invention that helped to save some lives in that disaster.  Had he been on board, he probably would have perished as did other notables such as John Jacob Astor IV.

The Marconi exhibit is housed in Cabot Tower which is at the top of the Hill and was used primarily for flag signaling.  Marconi operated a wireless station on the second floor.  The view from the Hill on a clear day is spectacular.  Unfortunately, it is frequently shrouded in fog, as was the morning we were there. 

From there we visited an historic fishing village right in the heart of Newfoundland, Quidi Vidi.  Some beautiful scenes are to be seen there, not to mention the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company, a microbrewery, probably the eastern-most one on the North American continent.  

 There we bought a gift pack for our nephew, Angelo, who was taking care of our car for our return to NY.  Finally, we went back into town to walk around, parts of it reminding us very much of Halifax.

As we departed St. John's, Newfoundland, the people lined up on Signal Hill.  Our ship was one of the last to leave for the season, everyone waving, biding us adieu.  The ship proceeded out to the deep water harbor through the Narrows and set a course south for St. John, New Brunswick, 810 nautical miles away.

Another sea day and another so-called formal night, although the tux has become somewhat passé on these ships.  I haven't said much about the Princess Cruise line and the food (the chief reason for a cruise for some, not us, of course :-).  It exceeded our expectations and the anytime dining worked out wonderfully, with two dining rooms to chose from, but we got comfortable in one, the Michelangelo, and the maitre d, Godwin (from India, where Ann is visiting later this month, so they got along famously) was very solicitous, always seating us promptly and where we wanted.  Naturally, we had to be force fed dessert, literally having to be tied down, we objecting strenuously, but all that food going to waste? 

In the middle of the next morning we entered the Bay of Fundy with its incredible tides.  One could see the tides ripping around the buoys as we came into the harbor.  This was our second visit to St. John, New Brunswick, and the last time we toured the outer environs, seeing all that the Bay of Fundy offered, but this time we decided to walk around the town, a lovely place, clean and refreshing, with friendly people. 

Some of the hills were challenging but up we went, anxious to see the City Market, the roof of which resembles the inverted keel of a ship, the construction which is more than a century old a testament to the handiwork of sea-side craftsmen.  The market itself is bustling with energy, the local tradesmen and farmers offering their crafts and food to locals and tourists alike. Naturally we had to purchase something, that being a litre of locally made Pure Maple Syrup for Jonathan to enjoy over his pancakes!   

We wearily made our way back to the ship to prepare for departure, marveling at beautiful St. John at night.  The ship sailed out of the deep harbor, through the channel passing Partridge Island and then turned in a southerly course through the Bay of Fundy toward New York.  We were at sea for one additional day, time to say some goodbyes, last Mah Jongg games for Ann and for me to finish the last novel of the four I read.  We passed close to Nantucket in the late afternoon, conjuring up memories of our several visits there on our own boat in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Those were the days.

Originally, we were supposed to dock around 7:15 AM but the Commodore announced that we would be entering New York harbor earlier, probably passing under the Throgs Neck Bridge at about 3:30 AM.  I wanted to get some shots of NY as we entered, particularly as we would have a good view of downtown Manhattan since we were docking in Brooklyn.  I made a mental note of the early arrival, hoping my body clock would awaken me without disturbing Ann to slip out onto the balcony for the photographs, but nighttime photography, hand holding a camera, is challenging.  I got up after we passed the Throgs Neck but still managed to get shots of the Statue of Liberty, downtown Manhattan, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and dawn with the Williamsburg Bank tower in Brooklyn in view, a landmark in my life.

This is probably our last transatlantic cruise, but well worth the trip because of the itinerary.  We covered 4,938 nautical miles which is equivalent to 5,682 statute miles!  Future cruises will be fewer but on smaller ships.

Disembarkation went smoothly and we were in a cab on our way to our niece and nephew's home in Queens where we had left our car, already packed up with stuff from the boat, for our drive back to Florida.  We departed their home in the mid morning, meeting up with lots of traffic around Washington and bedded down in Fairfax VA, 804 miles from home.  I asked Ann to expect an early departure the next morning as I was determined to get home without sleeping in another hotel bed and we managed to leave at 6:00 AM the next morning, returning home twelve hours later.  Wearily we unpacked the car, ate, and fell into bed.  Another wonderful cruising experience to remember!