(The first installment is HERE. Second is HERE. Third is HERE. Fourth is HERE.)
Note: this is possibly the Mother of All Bleats, to use an overworn phrase. Ready?
Would it kill any of these carvings to smile? Is it that cold and fishy and dank and gloomy up here? This fellow seems to find it hard to go on:
This guy’s consumed with something that’s just grinding his chops:
There are the caryatids, but you can’t blame these guys. Half stone, and doomed to hold up the porch.
Stockholm may be my favorite yet - it has the old charm of St. Peterburg without the decay or the crass blare of the nouveaus, the building scale of Copenhagen with better architects, more everyday grandeur than Helsinki. A morning boat ride and march up and down this street and that street; some of that rare European neon I like:
There's so little of that in Europe. And I say that based on several days walking around in different cities for up to four hours at a time.
The afternoon was spent at the Palace, where one expends another string of superlatives every time you enter a room. The entrance is designed to remind everyone that royalty is a breed apart, deserving of stages and sets the gods would not disdain. I mean, for heaven’s sake, this is one hell of a front door:
When you get inside you see . . .
. . . and then the security tells you there’s no photographs, because the flash can damage the stone. Actually, no, they didn’t say that, but you can’t take pictures, because they want you to buy the guidebook, or perhaps keep it all so secret and special people will go there because there’s simply no other way to see it. I understand why, we almost skipped the Vatican last year because I’ve seen so many pictures.
Sure. Anyway, I snapped a few shots here and there.
Is there a total accounting of the number of statues and putti and bas reliefs and crests - all the manipulated stone, in other words - in all of Europe? After a while it becomes overwhelming and almost numbing.
10:07 Ocean Bar
Everyone’s asleep. Wife got up early, against her will; daughter rose at - well, I’d say the break of dawn, but there’s no such thing up here. I’m still ramping down from the excitement of “Deal or No Deal,” which was as dull as the original show; no skill, just a guy saying “suitcase #2” and then faux suspense as he is presented with A DEAL from the BANKER. All played for laughs; $500 top prize. The contestant took the $80.00 after the first round, rendering the rest of the game absolutely moot, but I suppose if you watch it at home all the time and think it’s just the shizznits, being in the presence of real suitcases opened while ominous music plays is the sort of thrill you don’t get at home.
Nice supper; the recommendation from the chef were the short ribs, but the waiters were pushing the lamb. Meaning, no one’s having the lamb. Conversation was merry and congenial. There are two kinds of tables: work and play. This was play. The work tables are hard, but you can always rely on “What do you do?”
“Retired” is an answer, I suppose, but that’s not really the point. I’m always interested in what people do, and if I don’t know anything about it - I mean nothing, can’t even formulate a second question - then at least you learn something. Sat next to a guy who sold boilers for large-scale energy plants. Newest thing coming up: modular small-scale nuclear plants. Sat next to a guy who sold elevators: the newest thing coming up are motors on the side of the car in the rails, instead of on the top.
Nowhere you can go after that, really, but it was at the tail end of a long conversation about elevators.
The bar just filled up with 25 people who have had a lot to drink - it’s the “Pub Crawl,” which is a justification for drinking a lot, since there are many many bars on board - they insisted that the band play “Tequila.” What was a quiet little nook with a jazz band is now unbearably loud, so I’m moving.
There. Now in the starboard side of the Ocean Bar. Anyway. This morning we got on a Hop On Hop Off shuttle boat. The map they gave us showed the direction the boats would take. The boat went the opposite direction, skipped the first stop, skipped the second, and landed at the Vasa Museum. This is where they have the famous Swedish warship, the largest of its day; it sailed forth with banners flying, made it about half a mile, and sank. Laid at the bottom for centuries until they brought it up and built the museum. Walked into town, made a circle around a park, headed down the middle of the street. This . . . is a city.
Past a church and a museum - hey, you know the district, too? That one. The one in Europe, right? Right. Then down to the docks to hop on a Hop On Hop Off. I loved this place:
“First stop Old Town,” said the guy who took our ticket. We went past Old Town, straight to the Vasa Museum. “Then Old Town then Cruise,” said one of the gangly youths who ran around handling customers. So . . . straight to the Amusement Park, ignoring the Old Town, where we had to change boats. In other words, they just make it all up.
Lunch, then back on the bus. Hit the Palace, as described bove. After the palace and the obligatory walk through the Old Town - here, it looks like this -
But you could wander around if you like. Here.
After we cast off the ship threadedthrough the Swedish archipelago - past private islands that go for millions, nice homes in the woods, a sprinkling of civilization and money that goes on and on. Two huge cruise ships behind us, threading through the lane.
It’s remarkable how you get used to these things.
(Note: I wanted to use some Swedish music - specifically, Stenhammar - but nothing fit. So I used one of John Williams' best German Romantic homages.)
Today, the penultimate destination: Unterwelm. Well, no, but it was underwhelming, compared to the rest. The main attraction was some hamlet the locals call “Berlin,” but you had to take a three-hour train ride to get there. Some other day. The alternative was a 20-minute train ride to Rostock, a hardscrabble burg with a touristy Medieval center. Again, the Medieval center. That they exist at all is a testament to the weak nerves of the modernists; no doubt Corbu et al would have leveled them and replaced the sick old collection of plaster and stone with tall perfect shining towers, each separated by a green strip of grass one could admire from the walkway. Of course, for all I know, the Allies leveled the place, and this is a 1952 recreation. But it seemed authentic, right down to the Burger King and Pizza Hut.
To get to Rostock we had to take a train, and if there’s one thing that gives me the slight tights, it’s being on a train in a country where I don’t speak the language and don’t have a lot of currency. Oh, you say, c’mon - plastic, right? Everyone takes plastic. No one in Rostock took plastic. Euros or nothing, pal. The train was tidy, although the windows were scratched with words etched by a youth while others sat around saying nothing. After all, he had the sharp instrument. A tram took us up Rosa Luxemburg street, past Engels street . . . hey, this is Eastern Germany. As in East Germany. As in Commie Germany. That explains this style:
KZ, I think, is shorthand for Concentration Camp.
Former Eastern Bloc: explains the sad shape of the public areas - old decaying concrete planters in the gardens, rickety handrails in the park, the dispirited underpass to the trains. Of course! Makes the transformation of the Old Town into a tourist mecca all the more impressive, and heartening: there was a gleaming mall on the end of the street with an organic food store and a clothing shop called NEW YORKER, T-mobile signs, bookstores, fashion chains, and not a jot of anything with that international socialist funk.
Because it doesn’t sell and no one believes it and it’s ugly, a stone on the heart. You want uplift. And so: sugar und Gott. For sugar we ducked into a shop and my eyes went up to something I now know was a Communist-era light fixture. It’s beautiful in spite of itself:
Church time. MEIN GOTT IN HIMMEL
The church was an amazing mess. Unlike the innumerable Baroque churches I saw last summer, half of which might as well have been dedicated to St. Obligatori, this one was utterly unique in its incomprehensible layout. Four wings, horrible sight-lines, a great stage of an altar. Tucked behind the altar, a clock / calendar, which is more or less an ancient computer:
It predicts the date of Easter to the year 2017. (But the Mayan calendar is more important as a predictor of the end of times, because they were, like, spiritual ‘n’ ancient ‘n’ stuff.) Tall enough for a Saturn V rocket. What really set the place apart was the organ, billowing out of the wall in a bank of stone clouds, and my God the thing deafens you just to look at it. See the scale of the space above? Same scale:
Mother of Mercy.
Everything’s rather an anticlimax after that.
We walked around some more, paid 5 Euros to walk up to the top of a tower and then walk back down again - actually, I think that part was free - then we took the train back to Unterwelm, to walk around the German version of a beach town. Nothing like the American version; no swimsuit shops or T-shirt shops. All beer and sausages and fish and pretzels and beer. Packed; lots of little dogs and bold birds: one seagull swooped in between wife and daughter and stole a piece of pretzel my wife was carrying. Nearly gave her a stroke.
Dinner on the ship: they’d imported an Oompah band, and the Lido deck by the pool was given over to every variety of sausage and German side-dish you can imagine. Glorious. You wanted to start hoisting steins and annexing things. Afterwards we went to Classic Movie Trivia, and if you’ll recall we one the Modern Movie Trivia last week, as well as the first Trivia match. Twenty films. Everyone in the room was feeling pret-tee darn good about themselves until #13, when Agnes Moorhead’s face filled the screen and she said “of course he’s impressive, that’s why I gave him $60 million” or something like that. Then a girl saying he was impressive, then an old spluttering man with his hair falling in front of his face, and then a shot of a boom mike for one second. Groans of dismay from the audience: what the hell? Was that? What? Mwahahah, I think, and not only did I win, it was A) the only perfect score of the voyage, and B) I won a bottle of champagne.
Last night they had the “Marriage Game” game show, essentially the Newlywed Game. A couple married 5 years, another married 30, and another married 59 years. What’s two things you wife does to get you in the mood? Mr. 59 years gripped his cane and grimaced and said “I can’t remember.”
Hah hah! No, seriously, sir, what are two things. He looked pained.
“I really can’t remember.”
(His wife, who was sharp as a kitten’s claws, said “Hold his hand and blow in his ear.”)
Question #2: if you could “cuddle” - the euphemism for “Whoopie,” if you’re thinking Eubanks - with any other woman, who would it be?
Mr. 30: “I guess Sherri.” MC asks: and who is she? “My sister-in-law.”
Hilarity from audience: dead man walking. The third fellow mentions a tennis player, which the MC has fun with. But come the “two things she does” question, the third fellow says “takes off her clothes,” and “turns the TV to the Tennis Channel.”
Well-played, sir! Well played.
Now I’m on the veranda, looking at a nuclear cooling tower - and Unterwelm is sliding by. Next stop: Hamburg.
Ahhh, it’s over. One last dinner, one last cigar on the veranda, off to sleep and back into the neither-here-nor-there world of intercontinental travel, leading up to the moment when I get to the house and find it’s okay, or ransacked. One never knows.
Took a bus from Kiel for an hour or so, then had the city explained? Haltingly, ya? by the guide. Who was okay. Not a lot of context. It was more of a bus tour than a walking tour, but I was glad for that: saw a lot and was mightily impressed. I wonder if this is the norm: do people regularly leave Hamburg and say “now there’s a place I’d like to poke around some more,” or is Berlin the big-swingin’ impressive joint everyone loves on first sight? It wasn’t that Hamburg was beautiful - the residential neighborhood we toured was nice, but every town has the high-hat quarter - it was the heft and seriousness and monumental commerce.
Of course, CHURCH:
We swung through a freshly tossed-up neighborhood in an old industrial section, an attempt to replicate the old inner-city in a new architectural vocabulary. For the most part, it works: this is the sort of modernism I like. Not standing apart, preening, but close together, diverse but collected.
Trust me, it works. Most of the time: I’m split on this one - it’s fascinating, but I’m not sure how it’ll wear:
Google Street View caught the district in progress:
And this . . . well, as is the case with so many new forms, just because you can doesn’t mean you have to.
Canals; buildings rising sheer with practical assurance, a rebuke to the fripperies of Venice. Enormous warehouses. A city hall that’s more than a city hall; doubles as a state capitol, from what I gather.
Oy. To give us the exact counterpoint of all this civilized glory, the tour guide took us to Rape Street. That’s how it sounds, anyway. Raaperbahn. Raperbahn. Reaperbahn. It’s the red light district. No tour’s complete without a slow prowl past the porno shops! Somewhere in there the Beatles got their start. It’s a shrine. There’s a statue. At least that one most people can identify.
After a fortnight in Europe the concept of “overkill” starts to seep in, but that’s because you’ve seen one incredible place after the other. If you’re living in the city, perhaps you’re used to your city’s landmarks; the statues are pigeon-poop platforms, little more. You have to wait for a visitor to remind you. But even so, I doubt 10% of the population knows who half these statues are meant to represent. The characters stand on their plinths like actors in a play whose sets were never struck, even though the play ran out of lines and the plot was picked up by another show down the street. A lucky few were memorialized inside City Hall: Herr Schuback, for example. 1732-1817: there’s an interesting time to be alive. There must have been a hundred faces carved in the pillars of the City Hall. Ignored and unknown - and they’re the special ones.
All those fossils: it weighs on you. But there are different ways to deal with the burden, I suppose; last summer in the Mediterranean we saw how everything just basks and shrugs and moves along towards the end of the day: raise a glass to the glorious sunset. In the north there’s a brisk nod to the break of day, but no more; work to be done. The North works. Life is good but winter is coming. Winter is always coming, even on the last day it lets the harbor leave its grasp.
Anyway. It’s been a better trip than last year, and that one was just spectacular. Cooler, cloudier, more brooding, but more invigorating for it.
Now we go home. All my photos are downloaded and named and labeled and sorted. The travelogue is written.
Back to sorting matchbooks. Can’t wait.
One more thing: as we were pulling out a few nights ago, the louspeakers on the dock played that “Time to Say Goodbye” song you may have heard. As we pulled out, I saw something unfold that was quite simple and charming; held the camera as steady as possible, zoomed in as tight as I could. They’ll never know. But I hope somehow they’ll find this.
PS: Got home. House fine.
TWO WEEKS OF NEWSPAPERS ON THE PORCH.