The following morning we woke up in Helsinki, Finland. After spending the past three days on group tours we decided to explore the Finnish capital on our own with no agenda. The previous night, I hung out at the casino bar sipping wine while chatting with a single female traveler. We had met a few nights into the cruise and seemed to always end up laughing and bonding over wine with the gaggle of the casino in the background. Cindy was a youthful recent widow from California with no real plans during the cruise, so I invited her to join us in Helsinki.
A shuttle took us to the town center where we strolled around a local market displaying bright fresh vegetables, strange fish, and arts and crafts. I stumbled upon a booth selling contemporary silver rings and consulted my new-found friend for her opinion. She checked out the small silver stamp acknowledging it was real and concluded, “if you like it, than it’s right for you.”
That’s my type of philosophy, so I bought the ring. We came across the “hop-on-off” bus electing it for our leisurely prefabricated journey. We hopped off at the modern Rock Church, a must see according to the guide-book. I had memories of the church from a previous visit so I sat in silence for a spiritual moment as the music played and acoustics shined. Internal fulfillment satisfied, my stomach suddenly screamed lunch and we found our way to a local pub and restaurant.
Another excellent feast followed by a social casino night filled our evening as we awoke to the most beautiful port of Stockholm, Sweden at daybreak. Colorful buildings lined the harbor as church spirals jetted into the blue-gray sky. I ran on the treadmill admiring the stunning port as sweat beaded off my skin. It was a quick run and shower since we had to meet our bike tour group at 11:00. Our only reference for the tour was to “look for the old Admiral ship.” We were to meet in front of the landmark. We gave ourselves an hour to find the ship and the bike shop which was within walking distance from the Eurodam. After 50 minutes at a fast-paced walk we saw the Admiral as the last sailboat in the harbor. I picked up my speed to a jog. Finding the group upon departure, I waved them down and pleaded for a two bikes and a helmet. The guide was more than happy to accommodate and off we went for our tour of Stockholm.
We weaved in and out of traffic stopping at important sites while getting tangled in a parade surrounding the changing of the guards. I smiled and admired. We got a history and social lesson as our guide explained their tax system, among other things. Damn, our son should marry a Swedish girl I mumbled while listening to all the benefits of being a Swedish citizen. Free health care, free school including college, getting paid to have children and about three years off of work, clean water, and a ton of other utopia benefits. The price though is about 60 percent in taxes. I listened with no judgement. It seems to work for them, I concluded from my limited interaction in this charming country.
Riding through nature we almost lost our group for a photo opportunity, landing back at the shop three hours later. Starving, we found a great lunch spot filling up on cheese and potatoes followed by an hour hike around the marina to our cruise ship.
“Would you like a taxi?” my husband asked.
“No, I’d like to walk.”
He rolled his eyes and huffed and puffed as we boarded minutes before departure, just as the rain began. I smirked and gloated in my action-packed adventure.
After thirty-six relaxing hours at sea we arrived at Warnemünde, Germany. A pre-planned much-anticipated tour to Berlin awaited us at 6:00 a.m. I grabbed a few snacks from the breakfast bar, stashing them in my pre-packed bag for our 12 hour expedition. A three-hour ride to the city, a six-hour tour, and three hours to return. Yes a bit of a trek, but a city not to be missed by my standards…and I’ve been there before. I’m a history buff and Berlin has so much history.
Upon arrival a young bubbly Canadian, Silvia, boarded the bus and split us into two groups. My husband, Brad, and I were with Silvia along with ten others as we disembarked for an introduction. With stick in hand, Silvia gave an animated history lesson drawn into the dirt. “After WWII, Germany was split into four sectors divided between the allies after winning the war. At first all was good, then tensions arose. When was the Berlin wall built?” Silvia asked.
“1961,” I shouted out since nobody else answered. I received a sideways glance from my husband and a cheer from Silvia. I shrugged. She continued her dynamic and comical routine. I silently giggled, as others stood stone-faced. She was smart and lighthearted. I had a constant smirk on my face, finding our guide’s unique knowledge and quick jabs humorous. Silvia, being French-Canadian was a tour guide in France for a few years, then deciding she didn’t like the French she moved to Berlin. She had an amusing view of the Germans with a love/hate relationship that shined. Like me, she’s a vegetarian. Not an easy task in Germany.
We jumped on and off the bus touring sites and monuments as my husband took a huge interest in WWII history. He was like a schoolboy on his first field trip, and I found joy and passion in his excitement. We sat in the front row of the bus. My grin was perpetual observing Brad walk on the heels of Silva with a million questions only he could ask. I cringed at some and walked away, realizing it’s a great way for him to learn about this part of the world. Staying silent I discovered more about the war myself by listening to our guide. Letting go of my perceived knowledge allowed me to take it all in and experience history the way it should be experienced.
We passed through the famous Brandenburg Gate from West to East Berlin. I recall East Berlin as depressing just twenty years ago. Now, it’s vibrant and full of life. We visited the remains of the Berlin wall and the newly built Holocaust Memorial. Seemingly simple at first glance we were encouraged to walk through the memorial alone. With his newfound fervor, Brad was the first to leave and the last to return. My heart warmed at his fresh perspective of European history. An interest that continued when we returned to the states and rented every WWII movie produced.
Our final port landed us in Keil, Germany. We took a one-hour train to Hamburg, the birthplace of my grandfather. Hamburg was bigger than I imagined and the train station was like Grand Central in NY city. Apparently, it was also a popular place for the Punk movement. A young man with a purple mohawk approached me speaking German. “No sprechen sie deutsch,” I managed to murmur in my limited German.
“Do you have a cigarette?” he asked in English.
I handed him a cigarette then tracked down my husband to explore the town during our brief visit. We found a random Oktoberfest and shopping promenade then returned to the train station and our cruise ship for our final night at sea.