Final leg of a long journey

Aaaaaand here we are at the end of a long journey. We’re out of the hotel in Amsterdam, past airport security and passport control, and inside the KLM lounge. In about 18 hours we’ll be in Fallbrook.

Hard to decide where to start with topics. We’ve done and seen so much. First, just a few observations given the last 2-3 days in Amsterdam, Bruges, and Southampton (briefly).

  • Bruges, perhaps all of Belgium, is spotless. Very clean and well-kept. Amsterdam, not so much. In fact, Amsterdam city center is downright filthy. The canals are beautiful, but…it ain’t Bruges.
  • Both the Dutch and the Belgians know how to make some fries. It’s a well-honed craft with them, and bless them for it.
  • I’ll never look at an Aurora Borealis picture the same way. Turns out they are seldom visible to the naked eye, but the more sensitive sensor on modern cameras picks up the glow easily.
  • Another lesson learned – if you’re going to try and see the Lights, check the moon phase. A full moon is the worst situation (what we had). A new moon or dim moon gives you a much better chance.
  • The trains in Europe are a marvel. We in the US are absolute morons in comparison. At the central station in Amsterdam, you see people boarding trains for London, Paris, and the little town 10 miles away. And the airports have the train stations on the same property (doh!).
  • And don’t give me any of that crap about the US being so much larger. Mass transit simply takes planning and cooperation, and in the US we have neither.
  • KLM automated systems – passport readers, boarding pass readers, etc. – aren’t working so well today. Or not at all. I wonder who did their automation, and if today is the norm or just a bad day?
  • Wifi access to Internet is a modern necessity, almost like air, water and food. You just can’t do much without it. Most sites and apps won’t work well on 5G cellular (whatever the fuck the local carrier defines 5G as). Life is too short to spend waiting on a spinning screen icon.
  • My $25 burger in the Amsterdam hotel was (a) a surprise price, and (b) not that good. But at that point I was too tired to care.

On another topic – US politics. I am very, very happy that the mid-terms were not a red wave, but in fact were a repudiation of everything MAGA and Drumpf. The 60% of the US with a brain actually showed up and voted. I think SCOTUS’ removal of Roe and the Republican’s alienating everyone not white, rich, and straight were the big factors. Now that the Republicans have started saying the quiet part out loud in terms of bigotry, hate, religion, and misogyny people are finally understanding who they are. Or maybe they always knew but had some cover due to euphemisms and formal talking points. But no more, and that’s a great thing. Fascists gonna be fascists, and once they fess up, you better believe them.

By the way, I forgot to mention that we saw the original Groot in the Nordic Maritime Museum in Tromso. He didn’t say much, but there he was in all his wooden glory.

Last day

Last day on the ship – here we are in Belgium, a place we didn’t plan to visit. We’ll make the best of it with a good Belgian lunch (mussels and fries, no doubt) and a walk around Bruges. Then tonight we have a final dinner planned, a Nordic seafood feast in one of the ship’s pay-extra dining rooms.

Tomorrow (Sunday) it’s hustle off the ship at 7am, catch a flight to Amsterdam at 9am, then crash in Amsterdam for about 24 hours. On Monday we catch a 12 hour nonstop flight from Amsterdam to LAX. With a nine hour time difference, we arrive in LA about 3pm local, three hours after we left. Probably home by 630pm. The drive from LA to home will be dangerous, as I’ll be jet lagged and we’ll be right in the middle of LA rush hour (great planning, right?). The only car wrecks I’ve ever had were due to sleep deprivation, so…gonna have to be careful. Remember to drive on the right side this time. Maybe a ton of coffee.

The best things I can say about this trip are (1) I like Norway a lot. Could see visiting here again, maybe in the summer. (2) We got to see the Aurora, so that’s done. (3) I finally got the rest I needed after the summer/fall of funerals and COVID.

And OK, (4) Cunard is a pretty nice cruise line. Very formal, very staid, but well-run with great service. It’s octogenarian heaven. Not my cup of tea (pun intended, you have to see the afternoon tea hour to believe it), but it’s a bit of British calm in an otherwise crazy world.

Heavy seas

Well, here we are in the North Sea, somewhere east of Iceland and about 20 miles west of the European mainland. In gale force winds (about 65 NM per hour!) and heavy seas. All we need now is an iceberg and we’ll make history. Rough cruising today, so it’ll be another day of reading, movies, too much buffet food, etc. I know, I know, I could be in the gym. Should be in the gym. I’ll think about it.

The weather is supposed to clear and be pleasant by the time we arrive In Bruges (see what I did there?) in about 40 hours. We’re sorry to have missed the last two Norway stops – I realize I may not get back here again. Though if I do, it will be an airline ride into one of the larger cities, *not* by sea. This Trondheim image below is part of the reason – just a beautiful place. As I mentioned, water, water everywhere. This is a “suburb” a few blocks away from the center of town.

The Trondheim cathedral (below) is yet another reason. Built in the years from AD 800-1200, and refurbished quite a bit in the recent century, it’s beautiful. Not as large as some, but still awe inspiring. What was it about Christianity that inspired people to spend decades, their entire lives, building such fantastic buildings? Whatever the reason, I’m glad they did.

I would post more pictures but each one takes quite a while to upload to WordPress over my slow, unreliable Internet connection (hello there, 1999). So that’ll have to wait. There’s likely a way to reduce the picture size and resolution so that it goes quickly, but I’ve never needed that before and don’t feel like mucking about with it now.

Rolling with the punches

Well, a lot of things changed today. We had a great walkabout in Trondheim, then we returned to the ship to learn that (1), the US elections went better than expected (if you’re a D), and (2), we’re not going to Stavanger and Aleslund as planned. There’s rough weather and rough seas for the next 48 hours in the North Sea, so our capitain decided to skip those stops. Instead, we’ll be at sea for two nights and then have a make-up stop in Bruges, Belgium. Go figure.

Bruges. Turns out that nephew Corey just visited there and loved it. So we’ll go and have some mussels, frites, some Belgian beer and chocolate. Could be worse.

I will say that Trondheim was a lovely city. Water everywhere. Electric vehicles everywhere. Bikes, traditional and e-variety, everywhere. Just a great feel about the place. We visited the city center and a part of the old town across a river. Lots of walking; very enjoyable.

On the election, I just hope Warnock wins in GA. That will wrap it up nicely.

Election day

It’s Election Day, or more precisely it’s November 8th here in the Arctic, the day that will be Election Day in about six hours in the eastern US, and nine hours from now in the western US. All told it will be at least twelve hours before I can get any reasonable news about the elections. Frustrating, that.

No one really seems to know how things will turn out – pollsters and prognosticators don’t seem to have a clue. From my POV, we have two opposing forces. One, the expected push from reasonable people (mostly female) who get out and vote D because they want Roe restored in some way. And two, the relentless rise of the clueless and fascist Trumpers, whose only goal seems to be autocracy. Which force will prevail? That’s the morbid drama unfolding over the next 24 hours.

While we’re at sea we can watch news and see how things unfold, but once we dock all the news and sports channels are blocked by some god-forsaken contractual requirement of the satellite service. For some reason the satellite service (or the content provider) thinks it’s to their advantage to not allow cruise ship occupants to view their content while in port. I can’t imagine why, but the net of it is that we must fall back to cellular-provider Internet links for any information while in port. Madness.

Our next stop is tomorrow morning in Trondheim. We don’t have any excursions there, so it will just be a walkabout in the city. I haven’t done any research about the place, so it will all be a surprise. My paper-thin plan will be to find the inevitable fish market at the docks and have a good seafood meal there. Around the world in 80 meals, I suppose.

Now that we’ve accomplished the main objective of this trip, the rest is simply resting, observing, and hopefully enjoying the 3-4 stops remaining before we launch on KLM from Amsterdam to LA. Shipboard life for me is not much different from home life – just a smaller room and an ever-changing view out the window. While there are allegedly lots of things to do onboard, none of them really interest me. Call me a dullard, but reading, writing, watching movies, the occasional walk and a good meal are what I do. I miss the rest of the family, but I’ll see them at voyage’s end, or shortly after. But at this moment I’m quite sure that longer cruises are not for me.

One saving grace is that I’ve discovered a new (to me) author who writes the kind of thing I love to read – Neal Asher, who writes long-winded space operas, complete with detailed world building and scenes spanning galaxies. I realized while reading his second Agent Ian Cormac book that he writes very much like Ian M. Banks, and that’s heavy praise. He’s not as erudite as Banks, but the basic ideas and world building are the same. I love the idea of a post-scarcity economy spanning star systems, and what all there is to discover “out there”. With Banks gone, people like Asher can fill the gap and give us a little glimpse of what that world(s) could be like.

Success!

Well, after a week of travel by auto, air, ship and bus, we made it into the back country southeast of Tromso and finally got to see the Aurora Borealis. It was quite an experience, perhaps made a little better due to the difficulty and luck involved.

It was a partly cloudy evening, with snow on the way. But our small bus tour guide was supremely confident, and he delivered. He used GPS, multiple prediction websites, a group chat with his fellow light chasers and some very obvious photo expertise to find us two spots where we had clear enough sky. We had three separate sightings/events in two different places. The title photo was among the brightest activity.

The photo below was in our second location, next to a lake and looking north at some mountains. Not as bright, but still a beautiful show.

We were out in the cold from about 630pm to 1130pm – way past my bedtime, in any time zone. But the chase and the opportunity to see the Lights was enough to keep me going. Though some Woodford Reserve would have been welcome.

All in, I have to say I’m really liking Norway. The people, the mountains, the water, the fresh seafood…it’s all pretty great. I’ve had enough sunshine for two lifetimes, so the gloomy weather doesn’t bother me at all.

Approaching Tromso

Yesterday we crossed the Arctic Circle, the farthest north I’ve been on Earth’s surface. That’s a bit of a milestone. Today we’re approaching Tromso, and our Aurora watch begins in earnest tonight. We’re far enough north that on any night, we may see the Lights. And the nights are long – here in late fall/early winter, at this latitude the nights are 16+ hours long. Working against us is the weather – at the moment we’re completely socked in with clouds, rain and fog. We have three days for that to change.

Lately I missed a UK football game and (I think) another UK exhibition basketball game. And the World Series, again. I hear it’s a good one. But I got to see a little European League women’s rugby and some Euro football (soccer). The rugby was fascinating. None of this crossed my mind when I booked this trip 18 months ago. It was all about the Lights, and I suppose it still is.

I’m anxious to watch the US election results in 2-3 days (exact times escape me at the moment). It will be weird watching the fate of the US decided while far away, on a ship populated by Brits and a smattering of other nationalities, including Americans. Seeing everyone here reminds me that the world is a big place, not simply America, and while our political business is a big deal, it’s not the whole deal.

The sleepless nights (without Internet for a distraction) are doing strange things to my head. I’m getting tons of rest, reading a book every 24 hours, but only weird little bits of sleep here and there. I find myself in seriously deep introspection through the night and even the day. Not quite sure if this is good or bad, but it sure has triggered some serious self-examination.

On a completely separate note, while Cunard seems genuinely dedicated to quality, finding a good bottle of wine here is an adventure. Nothing good on the room service menu. Nothing good from any of the bars. All the house red wines are shit (I can’t say for the whites; I really haven’t tried them). There are some good bottles to be had in the formal restaurants, but you have to work at it. I ordered a 2015 Du Pape and got a 2020 bottle (sent back). We did find a nice 2015 Gigondas/Rhone GSM at a decent price last night – good or good+, but still not great. I have seen some *very* big money bottles on display (a 78 Petrus (!!), several Screaming Eagles, some old Bordeaux), but I can’t quite pull the trigger on more than $1000 for a bottle. Or in a couple of those examples, more than $5000. I enjoy great wine, but I’m not stupid.

I still haven’t downloaded/reviewed my pictures from Bergen and the fjords. I’m worried that my Fuji’s pictures will be noticeably worse than those from K’s new iPhone 14. Based on what I’ve seen so far, that’s a real possibility. Apple’s newest in-phone image processing is spectacular. In the more traditional case, I have to take a good photo with mostly correct settings, then do post-processing to perform the light and color enhancement that Apple does automatically.

Landfall!

We spent the day in and around Bergen, Norway. Bergen is the southernmost large city on the west shore of Norway, with a population of around 300,000. It’s a beautiful city – very walkable with tons of restaurants, bars/pubs, and the fish market near where we walked. We only had a couple of hours to explore, and it looks like a place you could spend a week enjoying the local sights and cuisine. The weather was cool and a little rainy, which we’re told is the norm. It’s kind of the anti-Socal.

We took a smaller boat up one of the fjords, and it was an excellent trip. Waterfalls everywhere – I need to post some of the pictures once I move them from the camera to the laptop. Norway is beautiful even on a gloomy day, and I can only imagine it on the day or two it gets sunny each year.

Next it’s on to Tromso, for our three day attempt to see the Aurora Borealis. Once again, a helluva lot of trouble to see some charged particles interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields. Fingers crossed.

Day 2 at sea

Still chugging our northward toward Bergen, Norway. In Bergen we take a smaller boat on a half-day fjord journey.

Last night’s dilemma had a fortunate outcome. I relented and dressed as well as I could, given my plebian wardrobe. K agreed to eat in a smaller, quieter venue as opposed to the grand ballroom Gatsby crowd. We ended up having one of the best meals in memory – everything was cooked to perfection and excellent, service was great, and I appreciated the much smaller crowd. All’s well that ends well.

We took in one of the stage shows and then just wandered about gawking.

Today my plan is to post up in one of the posh bars, a comfortable chair with an ocean view, and simply read and write.

First day at sea, and a formal dilemma

Twenty four hours aboard the Queen Mary 2, and we’re slowly heading north just south and east of England. We cruised by the white cliffs of Dover a couple of hours ago, and they were clear and sharp from a few miles offshore. Our first real sight to see.

We were supposed to leave Southampton at 5pm yesterday, but didn’t leave until midnight due to rough seas. The Captain says we’ll still get to our first port, Bergen, on time, making a steady 15 knots through moderately rough seas. Good trick, that.

The QM2 has a decidedly different vibe than the other 3-4 cruise ships I’ve been on. Less crowded, less frantic, much more comfortable. And the two of us definitely bring the average age down a few years. I like it a lot, though I despise the expectation that one will dress up (suits, tuxes and black tie) many nights for the sit-down dinners. I told K before we left that I wasn’t doing that, and…we’re negotiating. Having not brought formal wear at all, it’s more about negotiating how often I’m going to subject myself to being the poorly dressed unsophisticate in the crowd.

In my defense I dressed up every day for almost 40 years to go to work, and I hated it every time. Forty. Years. Now that I’m retired, I have a closet full of dressy clothes that (a) I don’t want to wear and (b) no longer fit, some by an uncomfortable amount. So my curmudgeonly attitude has a basis. K is taken by the whole Downton Abbey aspect of the evenings, and while I understand her desire, I don’t share it.

Internet service is very spotty – it works for a bit and then simply doesn’t. You do something else and try again later. Rather than spend $20/day for all 13 days, I plan to just sign up every other day or so. We’ll see how that works – I’m very addicted to having Internet information at my fingertips.

Southern England at last

Greetings from Southampton, a refreshingly green, cool, damp and friendly place. Our one night stay at the Doubletree Hilton here has been one of the best hotel nights in memory. The staff are all…lovely, as they say here. So polite and accommodating. The room was excellent, the food and bar the same. All the power plugs have standard 120 VAC (UK plugs), USB, and USB C. I’ll make sure to write them a glowing online review, published somewhere with a few more viewers than BLTN.

After three somewhat tough travel days, tough even with the design to avoid any rushing around, this afternoon we board the Queen Mary 2. I’m looking forward to unpacking and relaxing, even if it is inside a giant floating COVID oven. I’m sure connectivity will be sporadic, so I have books and movies squirreled away on the laptop for those times when I don’t feel like doing any of the cruise-ish things.

There’s a longer story to be written about the journey we took yesterday into the English wilds – Salisbury (not so wild) and standing stones among cows at the National Heritage Site near Avebury. But that will have to wait.