Saturday, February 28, 2015

Das Boot

We have been on board the Finnmarken now for several days.

Our cabin is wonderful and it has a large balcony.  The bed is very comfortable and we have been sleeping ALOT.

The boat has actually been fairly crowded.  There are the "cabin people" like us who are on for the long ride and then, because it is also a ferry boat, there are the "day trippers" who come on board for a few stops.

The day people do take advantage of the chairs in the "panorama lounge" on the 8th floor.  That is too bad, since it can be hard to find a good seat up there and you find that you have to take your panorama standing up.  When the boat is rocking and you are tired (which we always are), standing for a panorama can take a lot out of you and eventually we have to head back to our cabin.

Our cabin does have a large private balcony.  Seriously, it is about 20 feet wide by four feet deep.  On our first full day, we had deck chairs and a side table delivered so we could enjoy it.  I think we're a bit of a rarity on board the ship as most other passengers, if they come out on the deck at all, only come out for a quick smoke.  We are one of two rooms which have requested outdoor furniture for our cabins in February North of the Arctic Circle.

Meal times have been a fairly constant event on board.  That's pretty much what one does on a ship.

Most of the people on the ship are determined not to miss a meal.  They will line up, forks in hand, for pretty much anything.

The crew (including the waitstaff) have been for the most part quite friendly.  There are a few dour-faced young men with a lots of tattoos who seem to not quite know how they got there and are not too pleased that we're there.  In addition, there are a couple of no-nonsense "Helgas" (I'm guessing at the name) who just sort of glare in your general direction (I assume thinking wistfully of the good-old days, before capital punishment was outlawed on cruises).

The country-origin make-up has been a lot of serious Norwegians, a lot of really serious Germans who make the Norwegians look spontaneous and giggly, a number of very friendly folk from the United Kingdom and then a few others (meaning, some, but not a lot, from the States, a few from Asia and a few undeclared).  The Germans are particularly serious when it comes to food.  You do not get in their way when they are attacking, going in for a "Buffetkrieg".  You cannot tell when they bump into you if they don't see you or they don't care.  We are leaning towards the latter.  The real problem is that the old ladies are the worst and we feel guilty elbowing them back.

Breakfast and lunch are both buffet-style, with fish, a great selection of cheeses, a lot of different kinds of fish, cold cut meats, some more fish, a great potato salad which fortunately keeps returning, more fish, some other salads which are best to ignore while one focuses on the potato salad, fish, bread and crackers, and, did I mention the fish?


Then there is the dessert table at lunch, which is generally comprised of whipped cream in various states of disarray, flavored with some type of cloud-dingleberry.    The desserts here are fascinating in the way a car wreck attracts your attention.  You cannot believe what happened to that dish.  The Germans and the Norwegians, however, line up and bump one another with gusto trying to get to the dessert table.  I say, let them have it.  Except to the extent that cheese constitutes a dessert, I have avoided the desserts.

Today, so far, we got up, breakfasted, had a nap, went to lunch and are thinking about having a nap.

All is well on the Finnmarken!!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bergen, Norway

We ended up staying the full five nights in the same room, Room 304.  The bed was incredibly comfortable.  One day, after making it to breakfast, we went back to our room and slept until 2:15.  For us, Bergen really was a dream.

On the first day, since we appeared to never leave, our maid was not quite sure whether we wanted the room made up.  I am a good tipper, however, and she eventually figured out that we could be her last stop before heading home.

There was a grocery store a half a block away from the hotel.  It was not entirely necessary, as the hotel provided a breakfast spread (including eggs and bacon you could cook yourself, fish and cheese, and an entire breakfast buffet) from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. (until 11:00 a.m. on weekends), make your own waffles from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. (it is surprising how pleasant an afternoon "waffle-break" can be) and then a dinner buffet from 6:30 until 9 p.m.  All this and a bar at the reception (literally, the receptionist would move five feet from the check-in desk to the bar and pour you a drink; I tested it over a wide variety of times and it always worked).  You never had a chance to get hungry or thirsty.

Afternoon Waffles!

The grocery store did have cookies and ice cream, both of which we availed ourselves on the stay.

We had a wonderful time relaxing.  We found out that our room was regularly rented out as the "bridal suite" at the hotel.  I suppose mainly because of the enclosed balcony and the king-sized bed (real bed, not two twins pushed together).

We slept incredibly well, although not always precisely on the same schedule.  On the third evening, I did my normal "collapse in a heap" in bed around 10:30 p.m. and awoke to find Karen on the computer around 2 a.m.  We talked for a bit until Karen said, "let's have a couple of Vodka shots".  It was hard to argue with a comment like that; so I don't think I tried.  We sat up until I don't know what time and we continued to join one another.  The next morning came a bit harsher than normal, but it was a delightful night!  I love that Girl!!!!!

The bath/shower arrangement was a typical European layout.  I really don't know what they are thinking with their bathrooms.  First of all, I love a hot big bath, as much as anyone.  But the bathtubs in Europe are not big; they are dwarfish little contraptions which don't really have a "flat part" they just have rounded sides.  The shower is almost always an "add-on" to the bath.  They rarely have standalone shower arrangements; rather, they have the handle attachments to the tub faucet which are specially designed to pour water on your head as you switch the water from the tub faucet to the shower attachment.  On top of that, you can get the tub water at exactly the right temperature before turning on the shower attachment, but the shower attachment hose contains a reservoir of cold water so the water that spills onto your head when you switch it to the shower is always freezing.

So, you now have the water going into the bathtub.  Our Bergen hotel room had the classic European "half-wall" of glass which is specially designed to redirect the spraying water so that it doesn't go directly onto the bathroom floor.  Rather, it goes indirectly, underneath the "half-wall" of glass and around the end of the "half-wall" of glass (mostly because it really isn't a "half-wall", more of a "quarter-wall" with lots of openings).  After showering, because of this ingenious design, the bathroom floor is awash in water.  Fortunately, we have the specially designed European towels, which are slightly thicker than a lace doily, but don't soak up quite as much water.

Because of the European towel-absorption shortage, Karen and I try and space our showers so that one or the other of us can take advantage of whatever towels have been left for the room and the other gets the next day.  I would contrast this to our American hotel experience, where I can be my normal towel hog every day (using different towels for each part of the body) and no one notices or cares.

But I digress, the water is going into the tub, except for the water which is going onto the bathroom floor, and I climb up from the bathroom floor into the tub.  The tub floor is actually about a foot above the bathroom floor and the tub sides compensate for the height difference by being a little bit higher than a normal tub would be.  The combination makes for a teetering entry into, or exit from, the tub; with a constant danger of being "high-centered" at any moment - and not in a good way.

So, I am standing in the tub with the water sprinkling on me with the force of a light mist.  In the meantime, my feet are on the bathtub floor which is curved gently from both sides, so that at no point do I feel like I am not in danger of falling over.  There is no bar soap, what they have is the soap gel dispenser on the wall, with a specially designed cover that pushes against the gel dispenser unless it falls off, which it does regularly.

I like to shave in the shower, but this is not the time or the place.  The idea of a sharp instrument in this precarious position just sounds wrong.

Eventually, I am done showering, not because I'm clean, just tired from the effort.  So I turn off the water and ease myself carefully over the bathtub edge trying not to permanently damage anything of importance.  Once on firm ground, I'm able to daub myself with the "so-called" towels.  That effort brings me from "wet" to "mostly damp" and I reenter the hotel room and air dry for an hour or so.

We did venture out into Bergen in between sleeping and meals.  There was this fortress which I don't think actually was involved in any actual battles (though it burned down a couple of times and was heavily damaged in an accidental explosion - kind of like a fort for teenagers).  There was the tower part which was from a long-ago century which spilled all over the place with secret rooms, dungeons and no toilets and was quite interesting right to the point where you stepped out onto the roof, which is not my favorite place to be (why are all the views in high places?).  There then was the huge Hacking Hall (spelt, "Haakon Hall") which was built even longer ago than the tower part and where people used to do Viking hall-things.

We ventured back to the hotel and another meal (I forget which one).

I have discovered a recurring theme on trips outside the United States.  It really doesn't matter how good the food in the particular country is or how long you've been traveling.  At some point, an irresistible desire to have a hamburger takes over.  I'm not sure if it is an innate part of the American-being or if it came from our upbringing, but it is clearly part of traveling.

Through the wonders of the Internet, we discovered that Inside Live & Rock Cafe was a recommended destination for burgers.  It may have been, but it had the distinct look of a slightly abandoned warehouse (as in, they might come back, but probably not), the theme "dark and gloomy" seemed prevalent.  The street itself was slightly larger than a back alley, with graffiti, which we didn't seem to find much of elsewhere in Bergen.  We looked at each other and didn't try the door, afraid that it might work.

That day we ended up at restaurant that claimed it had burgers.  It was called the "Loge Haven", which loosely translated means "a place with chairs".  It certainly had those, so we took a couple and ordered hamburgers.  The hamburgers were made from an oddly colored substance with some of the characteristics of meat, but the general demeanor of something artificial, like brown pressed foam.  I'd like to say that it was good, but let just say it was burger-like.

The Loge Haven did have an excellent selection of beers and it had a lovely covered outside patio where we sat.  The cover was retractable, but since it was Bergen, it was raining, so the cover stayed on.  Given the amount of rain in Bergen, the retraction device may not get much of a workout.  We had an excellent Porter from Stvanger.

On our last day in Bergen, we grabbed a taxi and went to the Hurtigruten Terminal.  We checked in and they took away our "big luggage" (the pieces that looked like we were carrying members of the family with us - only heavier) and went in search of food.

We walked up the hill from the Terminal and after about eight blocks came across the Royal - Gourtmetburger & Gin.  Now this is what we were talking about!!!!  These hamburgers were great!!  Real hamburgers, perfectly cooked, with all of the accoutrements.  Top that off with excellent french fries (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, not too big) that they served in a tin can - it actually worked quite well to keep the fries hot.

We had our burgers, now it was time to board the boat!!!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ve be off!!

Here ve be, back in den Olde Country!

It was a LONG day yesterday.  On our first leg, we flew from Portland to Amsterdam.

We were in business class, the food was excellent and alcohol, most fortunately, was involved.  However, it was still 10 hours in a chair, which while incredibly comfortable for a limited time, got less so as you realized things like "7 hours left until your destination" after I swore I'd already been in the plane for 8 hours.  There were times when, looking blearily at the time counter, I thought they were messing with me, "5.4 hours left until your destination; 6.2 hours left until your destination".

I do like the personalized television monitors.  On extended trips like this, I am able to see the "shoot 'em up" movies that I am unable to watch when I am at home.  I took in several of the "incredibly old actor guy effectively shoots everyone in film" movies that have become so much a part of our current culture.  Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Bruce Willis, etc...  I am waiting for Steve Martin or Pee Wee Herman to come out with one of these.

We got off in Amsterdam at their airport "Schipol" (don't bother trying to pronounce it, the locals will tell you you're saying it wrong; I don't think they know how to pronounce it either).  Actually, we landed somewhere that must have been miles from Amsterdam and then taxied for about an hour.  We suspected that the pilot got the wrong airport and had to take the A-20 to Amsterdam.

After finally getting off the plane, we walked and walked and walked down Concourse D.  We seemed to go forever.  We started to think that perhaps the pilot had the right airport the first time and we were just walking back to where he started taxi-ing (not sure that is a verb).

We had to show our passports to get to Concourse B.  Really, just show them.  They looked and stamped them and passed us through.  I think even security is getting tired of security.

We made it to our gate and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Eventually, they called us to get on the plane.  Actually it was a bus.  I wondered a bit why they made us go to a particular gate when they were just going to load us onto a bus.  Particularly when the gate was such a long walk.  Couldn't we have just gone to a bus stop and waited?  As ever, my thoughts turned into realities and we waited on the bus.  And waited and waited.  The Norwegians were very polite, they didn't mull about and start to mutter, "WTF is going on, are we moving or what?"  I think I'm the only one that said that.  Everyone else just stood there, waiting.

Finally, a woman in an orange vest (well, she had on clothes too, this is Norway, not Sweden) came aboard, asked us to be patient (she was mostly looking at me), that there were technical difficulties and they were looking into it.  She then left, leaving us on the bus without seats (it was one of those transport buses not designed to have anyone in them for more than five minutes) while outside and upstairs there was a perfectly uncomfortable waiting room with seats just waiting for us.

After some time, the woman returned and told us that the technical difficulties had been solved by getting us a new plane and that we would have to go back to the waiting room until it was ready, which would be soon.  We herded out the bus and up the stairway to our old waiting room.  It was like coming home, except without any welcome, comfortable seats, food or drink.  At least it was familiar.

So we waited some more.  All this time, at our gate, there actually was an airplane.  One with wings, engines, the KLM insignia (which we were flying) and everything.  Someone pointed out to it saying "Why can't we take this plane, it looks free?"  It might have been me.

After an incredibly long time, they called us to the gate again, checked our tickets in a very preemptory manner ("you look familiar, go ahead") and let us go down the stairs to another bus.  It's about this time that most people would go, "Hey, I bought a plane ticket, this is a bus!"  But I seemed to be the only one.  Everyone else just got on board, probably thinking "oh, vell, dis be good enough, better den sitting in da waiting room."

We road in the bus a long way.  We were all standing as there were no seats, trying to hang on to the swinging handles or the slippery poles while corralling our "carry-on" luggage (which really isn't designed to carry anywhere), while the bus driver was taking quick corners, slowing down, then speeding up, in an apparent attempt to knock us over.  I assume the bus drivers at Schipol have some sort of office pool back at the station, whoever knocks over the most passengers wins.

I have no idea how big or small Schipol is.  Between our taxi-ing, walking and bus tours, I'd swear it was the size of Greenland, but I might be wrong.

The ride from Amsterdam to Bergen was uneventful, as I fell asleep almost immediately and stayed that way through the entire trip.  Karen told me that good food and drink were served, the guys in the next seats were knocking back Scotches and she hinted that a Swedish girl with a vest might have been involved, but I think she was kidding.

We did make it to Bergen.  We got off the plane and our luggage, although drenched from the rain, came into the baggage claim quite quickly.  We headed out to the taxi stands.  For a city that lives in rain or snow about 120% of the year, they have surprisingly few covered walkways.  It was raining and we got soaked as we tried to find the place that taxis actually left from.

We did find the taxi stand and a guy who looked like the coordinator standing in the area helped me by putting all of our luggage into the taxi (not a simple task, as we looked like a massive caravan when we travel, only missing the Sherpas).  I was so pleased by his work I gave him a tip.  He looked at me a little oddly, but accepted it with a smile.

I then hurried over to the far side of the taxi and got in.  When I got into the taxi, I saw the same guy in the driver's seat who helped with the luggage.  I thought about telling him, "In America we always tip first to assure good service."  But I didn't.

The taxi driver got us to the hotel.  He was very nice, but did not speak English.  He wasn't a local boy and I don't think he spoke much Norwegian either.

We made reservations at the Clarion Hotel Havnekontoret, where we had stayed on a prior visit to Bergen.

This hotel, like many new hotels, has a feature which we have never quite got the hang of.  Clear glass doors to the bathroom.  Who likes this?  I'm a bit iffy on people even seeing me after I have awoke and before I go to the bathroom to determine whether I am fit for society, but in the bathroom?  Anyway, I knew that they had "glass-walled" bathrooms, but that other rooms with normal doors were available.  So I asked for a normal bathroom door room.  What I didn't know was that all of the normal door rooms had another standard for European hotels, twin beds.

I really cannot explain where twin beds have ever made sense.  Perhaps for children under the age of ten, who haven't grown too much, they would be okay.  But for any normal-sized adult, they just don't make it.  And if you are a couple who are still speaking to one another, the idea of pushing two twin beds together, neither of which by itself works for a normal human, that doesn't work either.

We went up to look at the room with the twin beds and it was clear that it would not be appropriate for our stay in Bergen.

The front desk was pretty patient with us and arranged for the first night a separate room with a king bed, but only a limited view.  We loved the room, it has an enclosed balcony (yes, I'm not exactly sure what that means either) and a glass door to the bathroom, but lightly etched so you can pretend not to know who is in there or what they are doing.

We had a wonderful sleep!!!!