Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Is for Anniversary, Arctic, and Aurora

I wrote this yesterday aboard the M/S Midnatsol but am posting it from the Clarion Aurora Hotel in Tromso. Not much wireless connectivity in the Arctic Ocean. If the husband wants to nap when we get to Oslo tomorrow, I'll see about writing up the rest of the voyage.

Back to composing in Word. The husband cannot get an Internet connection even on one of the computers in the Internet cafĂ©, so I might as well not even try. Given our distance from any real port at the moment, the lack of a connection isn’t surprising. I am writing this late Monday afternoon, and I expect that it will be Tuesday before I actually can post this. This may or may not help keep things in the proper time perspective.

Before I get to the theme of this post, I need to report a bit on yesterday morning and afternoon. The action (also starts with an A) didn’t really get going until evening. When we awoke, the ship was docked in Trondheim, a city we have visited several times in the summer. It was somewhat surprising how little snow there was and how not cold it was. That’s somewhat become one common thread on this trip. We passed on the excursion to the cathedral and at 10:30 welcomed the husband’s second cousin (who just turned 88) and her son (who is about our age) to the ship. We spent a quite wonderful 90 minutes catching up over coffee. There was plenty to talk about since our last visit was six years ago. Noon came too quickly, and we had to say farewell. We did promise, though, to come back in two years should someone be throwing a 90th birthday party for Ingrid.

Sailing out of Trondheim, we passed a shipyard and a quite interesting eight-sided lighthouse. 
As you can see, there’s not much land around the lighthouse, none in fact. 

All Norwegian lighthouses are now controlled automatically. Still, it was intriguing to imagine what life might have been like for this lighthouse’s keeper in the older days.

During the afternoon, we also went through the narrowest channel of the journey, a mere 42 meters from side to side. Oh, and there was an almost-right-angle turn in there as well. Unfortunately, I was unable to get a photo that illustrates just how close the rocks on each side were. There was nothing I could really work in to provide scale. Obviously, we did make it through, with added appreciation of the talents of the captain and crew.

Last evening, the parade of A’s started.  First were some sightings of the aurora, our first on this trip. There are no photographs to verify this because I didn’t even try to take any. Five years ago, in Iceland, I did and afterwards didn’t really feel as if I had watched the aurora. My attention had been centered on the tripod, the camera, the proper exposure time, and so on. This time, I wanted my attention on the experience.

The first sighting was in the evening, before most people had retired for the night. It was not a strong aurora—it never varied from green—but it lasted for quite a while. We watched on deck 6, one of two open-air decks until the bitter wind drove us in and up to deck 8’s floor-to-ceiling-high windows. After it had faded significantly, we headed to our cabin for bed. We had been warned that should the aurora appear during normal sleeping hours, there would be an announcement over the loudspeaker. That announcement came at 2:15. We quickly dressed and headed up to deck 6. In the rush, I had forgotten to pull my hair back or grab a hat, so the first while outside was frustrating not to mention dangerous. I really couldn’t see anything, and the deck was slippery in spots. I couldn’t get the hair to stay put even under my coat’s hood. Fortunately, the husband had worn a hat which he gave to me and used his jacket’s hood instead. It was still only a green aurora, but it seemed to be everywhere. We saw it to the right. We saw it to the left. We stepped out from under the eaves and saw it straight overhead. The husband is Canadian with numerous aurora sightings under his belt, and he said he’d never seen anything like it.

The husband has been monitoring the Norwegian aurora forecast and says that there is supposed to be active aurora both tonight and tomorrow night. That makes viewing it subject to Mother Nature’s weather inclinations. Right now—late afternoon—the sky is quite cloudy. We have learned that that means nothing. We shall just wait and see. We have tonight on the ship, at least once we return from our three-hour Viking excursion that includes dinner, and tomorrow night, on shore in Tromso. There is an “aurora safari” there if the conditions are favorable.

This morning, we crossed the Arctic Circle. There was a contest to see who could most closely predict the exact time of the crossing. Needless to say, one of us did not win that contest. The exact crossing time was 7:17.1 am, and both of us had entered times right before 7:00. Crossing the Circle is marked by passing a small sculpture of the world sitting on a very small island.
There is a larger version of this sculpture at the northernmost point of land, but we will be leaving the ship before it passes there. Various posters and pamphlets suggest that it might be possible to have your photograph taken underneath this sculpture, but perhaps those are just publicity shots.

The crossing was marked again mid-morning by the appearance of King Neptune.
He came—in peace—to baptize those of us crossing the Circle for the first time. Actually, “baptizing” is probably not the right term for having ice cubes and ice water poured down your back with your shirt having been pulled open at the back of the neck. The first person to get the treatment was the winner of the crossing time contest.
Her prize is in the left pocket of her coat. It is a Hurtigruten flag signed by the captain and various other people with the crossing time noted.

I am not sure why, perhaps they liked that in response to the question of “where are you from?” I replied, “Virginia,” but I got two scoops of ice and water down my back. It actually was not as bad as it sounds. Still, I welcomed what came next which was being handed a shotglass of liquor. It was quite warming and made removing the ice cubes a bit easier. A couple actually made it all the way through and ended up falling out of my pants legs. After all who wanted to be baptized and a few who didn’t had gotten the treatment, there was time to pose with King Neptune to mark the occasion. I took this as an opportunity to publicize the existence of SEAL Team Physical Training, the people with whom I work out when I am not hindered by a bum shoulder.
As for the last A, today is our 30th wedding anniversary. This trip is our gift to each other, though I did cheat and bring along a card for the husband. It’s from a new Hallmark line and featured a Venn diagram of “you” and “me” circles with the intersection labelled as “the perfect amount of stupid.” I think that’s a descriptor we’ll remember, maybe for another 30 years. “The perfect amount of stupid” sums up the intersection of the husband’s rational and logical thinking with my flights of fancy—ooh! A shiny butterfly!—better than any other descriptor that pops to mind. It’s been a good 30 years, and here’s to 30 more.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Happy Rails to Cruise

Bjorn, the young man in charge of all the excursions and “entertainment” offerings on our ship (he is cute, has a very modern hairstyle, and speaks at least three languages fluently), said in his intro presentation that this ship, the M/S Midnatsol, has the worst Internet of any of the Hurtigruten ships. Guess what. He’s right. I’m actually typing this in Word so that I can copy and paste it into Blogger when I’m lucky enough to get not only a network connection but also an Internet one.

We left Oslo the day before yesterday, on a train journey known as one of the most scenic in the world. But for the lack of the Internet, I would include a link. If you ask Mr. Google to tell you about the Oslo –Bergen train, he will. We were lucky enough to get seats on the north side of the train meaning that we did not have the sun shining directly into our eyes (the sun is quite low on the horizon here). I’ve been saying on Facebook that it is warmer here than at home in Charlottesville. Here’s what the marquee in the train car had to say while we were sitting in the Oslo station. 
 As you can see, there really wasn’t much standing snow in the Oslo area. 
 That changed the more into the mountains we got. 

It also got colder. 
For the record, this is the coldest reading we have personally seen.

As we got closer to Bergen, the snow retreated,

and the rain started.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway (Oslo is the largest, while Trondheim is third). Still it looks like a much smaller town.

Did you notice that there is now no rain? (The streaks you see are because I took this photo through a window.) We have seen more weather mood swings on this trip than we have on any other. To say ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait for 10 minutes” would be quite appropriate.

We embarked onto the M/S Midnatsol in Bergen. To “embark” simply means you get on the ship; to “depart” is when the ship actually sails. Before we were allowed to embark, we had to watch a safety presentation including information such as how to put on a survival suit and, perhaps more importantly for some people, how to put one on a baby. We also learned how to board a lifeboat and, perhaps more fun for some people, how to use an evacuation chute.

Why the people in these illustrations are not wearing survival suits escapes me. I can only hypothesize that they were told by a crew member not to bother since we were told that in an emergency we were to obey any and all instructions from the crew.

We are in cabin 320 which means that we are on the bottom layer of the ship that is above water. Looking out one of the two portholes, we can imagine that we are on the same level we would be on in a Viking longship. 
This is actually pretty scary and gives us a new perspective on just how badass those Vikings were. Today, though, we value our cabin’s location because it is near the middle of the ship’s length and as low as possible, making it about the most stable spot on the ship. There have been and will be stretches during which the ship sails away from the shore and is technically in the open ocean. Let me just say that I immediately notice when this happens and that motion sickness pills are my friend.

We are on a trip package called something like Hunting for the Light, “Light” being the Northern ones. One might think that this would include someone looking for the aurora to let you know when it is there. Not! They will announce over the cabin speakers, even in the middle of the night, if the aurora is visible, but they can only do that if someone is awake to alert the staff. (If we were on the 11-day, round trip voyage, we would be guaranteed an aurora sighting, and given a free shorter voyage such as ours should the aurora not be seen.) On the first night, we stayed up until after midnight chatting with a couple from Ohio. Mother Nature was in one of her moods, and the sky would pour rain before showing us all the stars in the heavens before deciding to pour rain again. Last night was the same. Rain. Stars. Rain. Stars. If we don’t see the aurora from the ship, and perhaps even if we do, we can go on an “aurora safari” in Tromso and try once more then.

Aurora aside, the daytime scenery is pretty damn impressive.

It is downright incredible some of the places there are buildings. It again has given us a new appreciation of our Nordic ancestors. (Total non sequiter here, but today I learned that “Scandinavia” refers to Norway, Denmark, and Sweden and using the term “Nordic” means you’ve added Finland to the mix.)

Yesterday afternoon, we went on one of the ship’s excursions, a walk through the town of Alesund. (“Sund” means sound, and “ale” means eel, so we were in Eel Sound.) Our guide was a local and 70 if he was a day old. He’d lived there all his life, and we expect became a tour guide in retirement.” Alesund’s claim to fame is that it was pretty much destroyed by fire in 1904. When they rebuilt the city, it was all done in what was referred to as “new style” architecture. (The formal name escapes me and I’m too lazy to go look it up.)
Characteristics of this style include domed windows on the lower level, at least one turret, and exterior decoration on the sides. It’s a little hard to see the exterior decoration on this photo, but trust me, it’s there. Taking photos was a little dicey at times given that it was alternately raining and snowing. To make a long couple of hours short, it was wet.
Some thoughts apart from the scenery, history, and culture. I was thinking that this whole experience was not as I imagined it from reading about Norway’s “coastal ferry” or “mail boat.” It seemed a bit higher faluting. Indeed, there is an Australian couple on board who did this cruise in the summer a few years ago and are now seeing what the winter cruise is like. He told us that it is very different now than it was then. It is more of a “cruise” now and not as much of a “coastal ferry” or “mail boat.” We have cruise cards on which we can charge anything we want, including water to drink with meals. That’s probably the cheesiest thing and the one I will mention front and center if offered the chance to evaluate or rate our experience. We have assigned seating at the dinner period to which we have been scheduled. The excursions cost a pretty penny. We did the walk yesterday somewhat on the spur of the moment. We pre-registered for one tomorrow which is a visit to a Viking museum followed by a dinner in the Viking style. That will do it for us.

I thought we were going to cross the Arctic Circle today. It turns out that it will be early tomorrow. They have invited everyone to toast the crossing with champagne provided obtained using a champagne coupon one has to purchase. Given that the crossing is projected to be between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m., I think I can live without bubbly then, though if it were free I might feel differently.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Random Shots and Thoughts

Random shots from a walk to check out which train platform we need to be at in the morning and to obtain more coffee. I wonder how the ad theme below would work at acac.

Who doesn't love The Little Prince?

They start them early here. It's no wonder Norway has such good speed skaters.

I couldn't resist what with the reference to The Karate Kid (the original, good one)

No, the Lego Man and colleague were not in front of a Lego store.

Random, unfocused shot as we went up in the elevator. I do kind of like it.

Finally, legging, jeggings, skinny jeans and other such leg-wear is really "in" here. The thing is that everyone here looks good in them. The only really overweight people we've seen mark themselves as tourists by their wheeled luggage. Compared to the natives, both the husband and I are shorter than the norm not to mention chunkier.

On the Road in Oslo

I'm sitting at the desk in a 12th floor room at a posher-than-I-usually-stay-at hotel in Oslo. Looking out the window to the left, I see this.

Looking out the window to the right, I see this.

And, not to rub it in for all my friends and family at home, but it's 40 degrees Fahrenheit out there. While Charlottesville is enduring colder-than-normal temperatures, Oslo is enjoying warmer-than-normal temperatures. There is about as much snow on the ground here as there was when we left Charlottesville two days ago.

The husband is napping off his jet lag. I'm finding that four pieces of Jolt gum pretty much killed mine. Give that we'll be up early tomorrow, I'm thinking power through until early evening and go to sleep then.. Our train to Bergen leaves at 8:25 a.m. tomorrow, which means hitting breakfast when it opens at 6:30. Fortunately, the train station is directly across the street from the hotel. Tomorrow night, we'll be on the M/S Midnatsol, sailing from Bergen sometime in the evening. Fingers are crossed for some clear nights and Northern Lights. (The jet lag is starting to show.)