Thursday, June 5, 2014

Crisscrossing the Baltic Sea: How I spent my spring vacation...

Crisscrossing the Baltic Sea to northern Europe’s capitals
By Jim Heffernan

Tallinn Estonia 
If you should find yourself in downtown Tallinn, Estonia (actually “Old Town”) beckoned by nature’s call and you go to McDonald’s for relief, you will find the water closet locked and requiring a button code for a pad situated by the door to enter.

As a public service of this blog, that code is 0504…if you are a man. I don’t know what the ladies’ code is. I learned the men’s code from another tourist, he from Japan, just in the nick of time for both of us.

The incident was just one of many on our (my wife and I) late May tour of the great capitals of northern Europe by ship. Big ship. Longer than the Titanic, and taller than Duluth’s Alworth Building, if you count the stops on the elevators. If the vessel had gone to the bottom of the chilly Baltic Sea, the body of water we traversed, more than 4,000 souls would have visited Davy Jones’ Locker. Fortunately, there were ample lifeboats, I think, should the vessel founder.
The Christian Radich moored in Oslo, visited Duluth in the 1970s

It was nostalgic so see that public toilets (bathrooms, rest rooms, loos, etc.) in that part of old Europe are labeled as “water closets” or simply WC for those who do not recognize the international symbols for such facilities – outlines of men in pants, women in skirts, babies in diapers.

We don’t call them water closets in the United States anymore, except in northern Minnesota where our wilderness, the BWCA, stands for Bad Water Closet Accommodations, doesn’t it? Never mind that. We were in Europe.

On our voyage, we went all over the Baltic, crisscrossing from Copenhagen (where our journey began and ended) to Oslo, to a northern German port not far from Berlin and then by train to that storied capital, to Tallinn (remember that bathroom code, men) and on to St. Petersburg, Russia, the easternmost outpost of our journey. Then it was back westward ho to Helsinki and Stockholm, the Swedish capital of the homeland of one set of my own grandparents.
The Royal Princess docked in Oslo near the Christian Radich

People ask me which place I liked best. Each has its charms. Most of the cities are very old, some buildings standing since the 13th Century or even before. It shows in places. I bought a pair of boat shoes (I was on a boat, recall) in Berlin and got an irresistible urge to goose step whenever I put them on. Can’t imagine why.

So many of our fellow Northland residents hail from Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo, I felt right at home walking down the streets. The natives look a lot like many of our natives. Actually, multitudes of the apparent natives in that entire region – including Russians -- look like they could be plunked down in our area, and nobody would notice until they opened their mouths to speak and out would come their native tongues. I don’t speak or understand tongues other than English, and a little pig Latin in a pinch.

Toward the end of our voyage, the ship’s captain announced over the PA system from the bridge that he was sorry he couldn’t dine with the elite group of passengers who had paid to dine with him (the Captain’s Circle), but he was too busy “driving the ship.” I had thought underlings manned the ship’s wheel while the captain dined, but what do I know. I’m a landlubber, among other things.

McDonald's in Tallinn Estonia
Finally, let me note, as so many tourists do, that travel is broadening. They served three squares a day on the boat, with plenty of food available in between. I don’t know if my physique has broadened; I haven’t dared step on the scale yet. I’m just relieved to be back in America, where you can use McDonald’s bathrooms without memorizing a code.

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