Sunday, July 06, 2008

Scandinavia 2008 - Reflections at the End of Our Trip

After updating my Facebook profile with the new countries I have been to it says I have seen 25% of the world, or 30 countries. This trip I got a few comments that my passport is looking a little full. So am I an expert on traveling? not by a long shot. Especially with this trip, we only got to see one city in each country. The last time we were in Europe we at least got to travel through the countryside, and spend more than a day in one place if the desire was there. The benefits of this trip was letting someone else do the driving. We got to relax in an unpacked cabin while traveling to the next city. While we did get to wake up in a new country most of the days and it was nice being able to lock up our passports in the safe instead of wearing our money belts 23 1/2 hours a day. However, I felt like something was missing every time we used US money to buy something on the ship. There also just was not enough time in each country but it did give us good reason to want to go back and visit them more. The funny thing is that neither of us had a favorite country. We both enjoyed each place for different reasons.
London: Lack of language barrier (hmm, kinda).
Denmark: Bridges and churches.
Germany: Just taking a beach day.
Sweden: Meeting "long lost relatives".
Finland: Great biking and the most interesting people watching.
Russia: Just being in Russia.
Estonia: Preserved medieval town.
I don't think we could have asked for better weather for the trip. Really there was only rain while eating lunch in Russia and a little bit in London. The rest of the time we had nice non-humid cool weather (Which allowed me to wear my jacket to hide stuff in without looking weird). For all the possibilities of us loosing luggage, pickpocketed, getting hurt, or the bikes breaking, or us getting lost and left in a port; none of it happened. Really the only thing that went wrong was L. getting stuck on a crazy bus ride in Dover, and we had the extra day built in for just such a problem.
I do know one thing. I don’t think I will be going on anymore organized tours any time soon. I felt like cattle being herded in Russia and there is no way I want to be associated with inconsiderate people like we met in the Tallinn church. I am proud to say that I blended in good enough that a local person tried to talk to me in every country. (Which is saying a lot since we were in all heavy tourist towns and a lot of the time they would use English to the person right in front of me.) I just dressed the same way as the locals and kept the camera in my pocket when not using it. (We also kept our credit cards and passports in a hidden money belt. We saw plenty of tourists that had their money pouch just hanging around their neck - the one that is supposed to go under the clothes. I mean, I'm guessing they wouldn't hang their wallet from their neck.) I think it also helped to be respectful of the local customs like not talking annoyingly loud. Of course when they did talk to me I had to apologize that I had no idea what they were saying, Only in Finland did the person not know English. When I was in London I saw a guy in a "Hooters" T-shirt and laughed because while I knew he thought he was making a statement I knew there was a better chance of him being bugged by tour vendors, trinket sellers, and pick-pockets. We tried to get the basic words for each country but learned the most Russian words since the least people spoke English there.
I am glad I had a cell phone for the trip. It was annoying that there was the exorbitant price of $0.99 a minute when in reality the cell phone tower does not do any more work than when you are roaming on a different network, but it allowed L. to stay in quick contact with her family through some tough times. I also had a program loaded on to give me the exchange rates of all the currencies since only Germany and Finland were using Euros. (So much for the EU using a common currency.) I had loaded a VOIP program on my phone but the wireless connections I found just weren't fast enough so L. could hear me when I called from London but I could not hear her. I also had all the cruise excursions loaded into my calendar so if we ran out of stuff to do on our bikes we could look up what else tourists wanted to see in the city.
Of course as soon as you go on vacation everything falls apart. The project I was working on crumbled and everyone was trying to get a hold of me even though I had told at least one person on the team the info they needed. For L. all the family trouble seemed to be squeezed into those two weeks.
So, the final cost? $3025 for the cruise tickets + $240 for the auto-tipping they had on the ship, $1830 for our plane tickets, $420 for us to go on the one shore excursion we did, around $500 for train tickets and hotel rooms in Dover and London, and I’m not even going to go into how much was spent on souvenirs. But, the way I look at it, some people have nice cars, collect rare objects, or hobbies like golf. Me, I just travel whenever I can.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Scandinavia 2008 - Moments

Probably the best part of traveling is the little moments that just happen. They aren't planned yet they are usually what we remember the most.
London:
-Being in a foreign land by myself.
-Walking the cross walk for Abbey Road.
-Catching myself responding with a British accent.
-Realizing that sight seeing by yourself is boring.

Dover:
-Finally seeing my wife after 5 hours of waiting.
-Seeing the giant ship from across the bay.
-Walking 2 miles to the ship.

On the ship:
-Singing Karaoke
-Swimming in an pool in the middle of the ocean.
-Realizing at 12:30 in the night that the sun was not going down anymore than it was.
-Running down the narrow hallways during rough seas.
-Being refereed to as "The bike people".
-Going on stage to help with the magician's assistant.
-learning to juggle with my rolled up socks in the juggling class.
-Listening to techno music during breakfast.

Copenhagen:
-Getting lost trying to get off the ship with our bikes.
-Realizing in Christiana that if our bikes were stolen, I wasn't really sure there was anyone to go to.
-Just deciding that riding to all the interesting church spires was more interesting than the planned route.
-Riding a ride at an amusement park in another country.
-Getting bloated at Tivoli Gardens because we just had to try the local herring, sausage, ableskievers, and waffles.

Warnemünde:
-Being surprised by naked people on the beach.
-just riding our bikes without a care where we were headed.
-Climbing on the art in the park.
-Swimming in the Baltic Sea.
-Realizing how annoyingly convenient bike commuting is in Europe.

Stockholm:
-Seeing a Volvo limo.
-Walking where Nobel prize winners have walked.
-Having lunch with "long lost family".
-Trying to ride back into town to buy a hat before the boat left and having my chain come off from the hard peddling.

Helsinki:
-Walking the aisles of a foreign flea market and seeing identical clock to one we owned.
-Realizing we had just accidentally rode down the Prime Minister's driveway.
-Finding a house at the folk museum that even L. was to tall for.
-Eating reindeer stew.
-Watching newly-weds leaving the church in a bike taxi.

St. Petersburg:
-Reaching down and touching Russian soil while waiting in the visa line.
-Entering the Hermitage and climbing the stairs.
-Eating Borscht, than ordering it again the next day because it was so good.
-Being annoyed by "the ugly American" tourists in our tour group.
-Learning that one of the people got pick-pocketed in our tour group.
-Pulling L. away from the street vendors so we could catch the bus.
-Riding "the little green bus" with the dock workers.
-Walking into the middle of town based on my memory of the bus trip the previous day.
-L. pronouncing every sign she could read.
-Seeing the price difference between the local and tourist price.
-Avoiding the street vendors because L. decided she did not want to buy a box she had promised she would come back for.
-Taking the local bus tour because we were tired anyway.
-Watching the insanity of the people shopping on the ship because they never got visas.

Tallinn:
-Riding across cobblestone street after street.
-Riding through the deserted streets of the upper town because we had beat the tour groups.
-Leaving a church in disgust because of the annoying tourist.
-Putting out the eternal flame trying to light our candle. (and quickly lighting it again from the flame of another candle.)
-Waiting forever for our lunch and not knowing what to do about it.
-Realizing we had rode to the wrong port and we had 15 minutes to ride 2 miles.

London again:
-Riding on the left side of the streets and bike paths.
-Watching a musical about New York City in London.
-Getting in an argument because we suddenly had so many choices for dinner.
-Seeing the "gay pride" flag waving at the church.
-Getting pulled aside by security at the airport because of a "grenade" in our bag.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Scandinavia 2008 - London Again

We arrived in London at around 10:30 in the morning. Luckily our hotel was right next to the train station in Charing Cross. The let us check in early so we could put our bags in our room then we had lunch and went across the street to enjoy the British Portrait Gallery. Since it was the 4th of July we felt a little guilty “fraternizing with the enemy” so we took our picture with the George Washington statue to quiet our guilt. We had enjoyed riding our bikes in all the cities so much we decided to add London to the list so we unfolded our bikes and rode where ever we wanted to. We started by riding to Buckingham Palace. It still was not late enough in the year to tour the place so we continued riding through the extensive network of parks set up for the royal family to previously hunt in I’m guessing, but now it was for horses, bikes, and people walking. It was really sad that the people that were inevitably walking in the bike lane always seemed to be tourists. They really didn't recognize bikes using bike lanes.
We stopped by Harrod’s because I had to show L. just how over the top they really were with their grocery department and the size of everything. From there we wanted to ride along the river so we just took side streets enjoying riding bikes on the left side of the road. (Yes, it kept messing with my brain even though I have previously driven here.) We never did end up riding along the river. We ended up being forced to ride on really busy roads. We noticed something odd though, cars were not crowding the bike riders. So we tried riding and it felt so weird to have polite drivers go around you. Even the bus waited for us when it was trying to pull over to make a stop. It really thew me off to feel safe riding on one of the most busy roads in London. By the time there was a path to ride on we were at the Parliament building, Big Ben, and Westminster Cathedral so there was just to many tourists to crash into. Instead we just walked our bikes along the river then put them back in the hotel room.
In the evening we were glad to find the TKTS booth in Leicester square and bought tickets for the show “Avenue Q”. It was weird being in London watching a show about Brooklyn but the show was hilarious and we both had songs stuck in our head when leaving. We had Indian food for dinner and realized that since we had not eaten at any of the specialty restaurants on the ship this was the first time we were eating food out of the ordinary.
The next morning we put our luggage in the storage room, checked out and headed off to Portobello Road for the Saturday market. We came here last time we were in London and I still get the song from Bed Knobs and Broomsticks stuck in my head. There were tons of antiques and we finally had to call it quits because we could have spent all day there. From there we headed to 221b Baker Road to see the Sherlock Holmes museum. (In all actuality I only felt the need to see the gift shop since it was all made up anyway and the address is really 232 Baker Road. We headed back to our hotel, collected our luggage, and found ourselves in the middle of a gay pride parade there at Trafalgar Square.
Going through the airport security L.’s bag got stopped and there was soon a crowd of security around the screen with them calling more over. I heard someone say the word “Grenade” so I thought it was one of those false positive tests but they were clicking on the screen and every time they did they looked more worried. Soon security asked who’s it was and then asked L. if she had packed anything dense. After searching a little through her mind she realized that the Faberge egg she bought was probably triggering the image recognition in the x-ray machine. The security guy pulled L.’s backpack out of the machine with it blaring sirens and flashing lights. After pulling everything out of the backpack they realized the Faberge egg made up the body of the grenade and handle from a small glass stein made the pull pin and handle when they were stacked vertically in the x-ray. After telling us firmly (with a straight face until he turned around) it probably wasn’t wise to bring that through security. The alarms in my head kept going off every time I said the words grenade and explosives while at the airport. The rest of the flight went off without a hitch.
It was so convenient to be able to take the subway to the airport in London, New York City really needs to stop bowing to the taxi cab union and extend the subway to JFK and LaGuardia airports. Instead we had to take a bus to Grand Central Train Station that cost an extra $15 per person. We got home without any trouble and collapsed into bed almost immediately.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Scandinavia 2008 - Biking through Europe

When doing research for the trip I had seen that most of the cities we were going to used bikes heavily for transportation (All cities except St. Petersburg). This made me feel OK with using bikes to get around everywhere but I had no idea how good it would be. To give an idea of the integration bikes had we saw a bride and groom get into a bike taxi at a Helsinki wedding. Some cities even had free bikes for use around the city. (We never used them since we could never guarantee they would be there for ride back to the ship.)
Bike lanes: Not just a part of the road with extra strips for bikes. There was separate roads for bikes complete with traffic signals and lanes sometimes.
Bike rails on stairs: When we had to go up or down stairs there was a metal or cement ramp with a groove for bike tires. While so simple it is such an obvious idea that made using bikes so much easier.
Bike parking: We experienced this a lot, since so many people use bikes the huge bike parking lots full of lock up polls could fill up fast. Since our bike were small all we needed was one pole for both of them and we always found at least that.
Security: London was the only place we saw all bikes locked up. For the rest, about 35% had no locks whatsoever. 50% would just lock the frame to the back tire so someone could not just ride off. The last 15% actually locked their bike to something, usually with a flimsy chain. Since our bikes got so much attention everywhere we went we always locked our bikes up. Mainly out of habit but also it would have thrown a major kink into the works if one had been stolen.
Riding on cobblestone: I had to get the tallest folding bike because of my height. It just so happened that mine came with full suspension. L. was not so lucky and got a little more jostled than I did. However she was never sore enough to not ride the next day.
using maps: I had made sure to buy good maps of most of the cities we were going to. (I could not find Warnemünde or Tallinn.) I was the navigator for the trip so this meant lots of pulling over to look at the map. However it was much easier then a car since it is easy to switch from pedestrian to bike rider quickly if a wrong turn is made. I don’t know how many times we got lost last time we were in Europe because we got stuck on some one way road.
People’s reaction: I was expecting at least some angry people when we took the bike on or off the ship. That was not the case. I guess it was because they were unimposingly small and we rode them slower then normal bikes. We became known as the bike people on the ship. People repeatedly came up to us and asked us about them. In every city kids would say things similar to cool and give us a thumbs up.
Cost: Each bike cost us $350. We figured the cheapest biking, walking, and bus tours cost around $80. So after four days they were paid for. Since they folded up as one of luggage pieces it did not cost any extra to being them with us.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Scandinavia 2008 - Sea Ride Home

After leaving Tallinn we had two days at sea to get back to Dover. Up until now we only had one day at sea intervals and I had already seen everything on the ship so now it was an exercise in not getting bored or stir crazy.
L. was more that happy to read and take long naps. I read and finished the book I had brought with me and got caught up on these posts I was writing. Luckily there were calm seas so we did not have a repeat of the first day at sea. I enjoyed when I stayed up late hoping to see the Aurora Borealis and instead watched the evening glow shift from west to east as the sun reset. L. had convinced me that we should both get massages. I enjoyed going to the art auctions just to see the art and ended up bidding on a discount for a massage for the both of us.
Of course we had to try everything on the boat to say that we did it. We did play a game of bingo but I lost interest pretty fast. Shuffleboard was fun but I could not get the hang of the rocking ship and L. beat me handily. We tried the golf driving cage but having never golfed I was happy I could even get the ball to leave the platform. L. convinced me to play giant checkers and I enjoyed grabbing my pieces with my feet to truly jump her pieces but the deck was pretty wet and slippery so I didn’t try it to many times. We couldn’t find the basketball or tennis rackets so we never did get to play on those courts. And of course during the day I got in line with all the kids and went down the water slide. It was a little slow and I got stuck half way forcing me to use my legs to keep me moving the rest of the way down.
The last day of the cruise you simply packed up your luggage and left it outside your cabin. So we folded up our bikes that we had been storing next to our bed every night and put them back into their cases. We arrived back in Dover the next morning at 5AM. Our bill for the extra things we had bought on the ship was waiting by our door. We had our last breakfast and headed out. Our luggage was organized by the time you planned to get off the ship. We picked up our bags and got a taxi to take us to the train station. a 10 minute wait and we were on the train back to London.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Scandinavia 2008 - Tallinn, Estonia

(+59° 26' 58.53", +24° 45' 46.38")
I had never thought to visit Estonia but I thought it was cool that we were. Tallinn’s claim to fame is how preserved of an old city it has; and even though it was our last city we visited it is true that it impressed us with how medieval it looked. Since we didn’t have anywhere in particular to see we started out trying to do the walking tour but that quickly just gave way to us riding around on our bikes.
We started at the city wall. There was really no escaping riding on cobblestone here so instead we tried to choose our path to the smoothest possible cobblestone. This path led us up the the high city. It was beautiful. We were able to ride around deserted streets since it was still early morning. It was like we had the whole town to ourselves. Of course we had not out-paced the tour groups by much and soon we were surrounded.
We went into the “Old church” and like many churches it has a sign for no photos and to be silent. There were tour groups in there and it was obvious that the tourists didn’t care they were in a church because they were snapping away with flash pictures and talking loudly. I was about to tell someone off but the tour guide beat me to it. That lasted about 30 seconds before people were taking pictures again. We left quickly trying to get away from the tour groups.
We went into the Russian cathedral. There was a service going on so a small group was huddled on one side chanting and singing. There were also bee’s wax candles everywhere that were lit adding a smell somewhere between honey and incense. L. bought and lit a candle (4 Kroon ~ $0.40) for her grandmother who she had just found out was getting a stint in her heart that day.
From there we rode the the Parliament building and castle (One building) It was funny to see how they had just glommed on extra building to the castle as they needed more space. For how official of a building it was I like how hodge-podge it looked.
We rode back down into the lower town and decided on lunch at Olde Hansa, a German medieval building in the middle of town. The food was delicious but it took forever. After waiting an hour the waitress warned us that the desert took some time. We didn’t want to be the rude Americans but after signaling for our check and waiting a half hour we went inside and paid for food so we could leave. I would have like to stay but the deadline of the cruise ship put us under a deadline or we would end up buying a plain ticket back to Dover.
Part of the city wall was used to sell woven clothes. It is known as sweater wall, and looked just like a Renaissance Faire except these people were not dressed in costumes. We also visited a pharmacy that has been in operation since the 1300’s. They had shelves full of old remedies. I can only wonder what current medicine will look like in a few hundred years.
When we headed back to the dock we took a different way with me thinking that it would save time. As it turns out it put us on the wrong side of the dock. With all the other cruise ships hiding ours it gave us a skip that ours had already left. Our bikes came in very handy once we saw our ship. Otherwise we would have had a lot of running to do to get to the other side of the dock in time, As it was it was just a normal bike ride that gave us plenty of time to spare.