Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Boat People

Some of the people who went from a river cruise
to a river cruise/bus tour in Central Europe in August.
I'm the one in a blue Buffalo Bisons' cap in the back right.
   We had been waiting to take a river cruise on the "Great Rivers of Europe" since January, when we signed up through Grand Circle Cruise Lines. It would be three weeks of August fun, visiting five nations in 21 days - some of them slated to be viewed on a luxury boat moving at a leisurely pace through beautiful scenery. It would be the longest trip of our lives.

   Then came the email a few days before we headed to Amsterdam. Due to a drought in Europe, water levels had dropped to unsafe levels in certain portions of the planned route. So everyone would be hopping on a bus for a couple of nights and taken to a hotel. All right, the packing and unpacking of three weeks' of clothes would be a pain, but we'd adapt.

   But once we got on the boat named Rhapsody, we were told that conditions had become worse. The ship could get no further up the river than Koblenz, Germany. Two nights off the boat had become six. Details to come.

   And that's when about 127 people became "boat people": refugees from their homes on the Rhapsody. When those six days were over, those same 127 people looked rather tired as they boarded the Adagio - located on the other side of the Continental Divide from the Rhapsody. One tourist had broken an arm along the way, and another had bumped his head after fainting because of dehydration, suffering a few bruises. The Program Directors may have been even more tired than the tourists, because they had to deal with everyone's endless questions as an entirely different itinerary was created essentially on the fly. They were remarkably poised under the circumstances.

Some of the tourists no doubt visited the lounge
for an adult beverage after returning
to a boat after six nights in the "wilderness."
   No one was looking for sympathy because they had to haul luggage a few times and stay at four-star hotels in fabulous German cities. Still, it was a different experience than what was anticipated - sometimes better, sometimes worse. We finished in Prague with a crash course on European history, geography and culture.

   When someone asks me, "How was your trip?", words such as excellent and fascinating comes to mind but don't quite cut it. I like to come up with a full story - mostly to get some easily forgettable observations down on paper before they pass away. This time, I asked some of my fellow passengers what they noticed along the way, and they came through nicely with suggestions for this article. Thanks to them for the help. I'll eventually have thoughts on individual places on my travel blog, Some notes could be essays in themselves, others are shorter subjects, and some are trivial to silly, but all reflect on what for us what a unique experience.

   One last rule - a long vacation means a long blog. Don't say you weren't warned. 


Heaven in Europe is where
the English are the policemen
the French are the cooks
the German are the mechanics
the Italians are the lovers
and the Swiss organize everything.

Hell in Europe is where
the German are the policemen
the English are the cooks
the French are the mechanics
the Swiss are the lovers
and the Italians organize everything.


 * The first thing you'll notice about the passengers on a Grand Circle cruise is their composition. I was told that I'd probably be the youngest passenger on the boat, and that seemed to be true. The vast majority were over 70, prompting someone to say that a Grand Circle boat was actually an "elderly hostel" in disguise. I'm not sure how comfortable anyone under the age of 60 would be in these circumstances.
    The group consisted of almost all Americans; I think there was a stray couple from Ontario along for the ride. Many guests were predictably from the Sun Belt. Everyone seemed to be in the same demographic - not truly wealthy but comfortable enough to take a trip like this. (To put it another way, we heard stories about washing clothes in the sink that matched our experiences.) This was good and bad. It certainly made initial conversations easier, as many had been around the United States a lot and had stories to share. One woman from Chicago often came to Buffalo in the past to see relatives that lived on - wait for it - our street!
   But I didn't feel like a great fit with many of those on board, perhaps because I'm still doing a lot in "retirement." I'm a little more in the present than some retirees, and that's a bit of a potential barrier. Besides, some of the other international trips I've taken have featured people from other countries. Conversations with those tourists have been fascinating. There was none of that here, and I missed it.
   The group had its quirks. For example, attention spans could be a little short. Announcements were made one minute, and then asked to be repeated by someone the next. Elsewhere, I saw some passengers in place in a hotel lobby, patiently waiting for a departure time that was more than an hour away. They weren't going to miss that bus.
   The touring encompassed plenty of walking, and I'd bet that many of those on board - some of whom needed canes - probably overestimated their ability to handle the physical load. The strain of the extra bus rides probably didn't help either. They must have been really tired upon returning home.
   I didn't see many signs of the passengers acting spoiled or privileged. An exception - one person thought it was pretty funny that a staff member accented the wrong syllable of a word during a public announcement. I was tempted to say, "How would you do on pronouncing the biggest words in your fourth language?"
   Eventually, though, people found other passengers that were a good fit in personality, and joy grew exponentially. We laughed at one person's reaction to going on a subway for the first time in her life, and watched her delight when she found out the line went under the river in Prague. ("REALLY?!?") When we were back from our adventures on the streets of the latest city, others couldn't wait to hear them - sort of like what the ideal mom does when the kids come back from doing something special. ("Tell me all about it!") Departure Day is always a bit emotional in such circumstances, with plenty of "If ever you are in Altoona ..." moments heard during goodbye hugs.

   *  On the big ocean liners, there is plenty of pressure to spend extra money. Go to the fancy restaurants to order big meals. Buy drink packages, Go look at jewelry. Check out the casino. Go on elaborate outings in port.
   There wasn't much of that here. Beer, wine and soft drinks were all covered. They'd sell you some mixed drinks at the bar if you insisted on it. I'm not sure if the unlimited availability of such beverages was a primary attraction for this crowd, but not too many people passed up beer or wine with lunch or dinner. The food was more than acceptable; I only had to go off the menu for a hamburger once, And passengers' birthdays were properly celebrated with sparklers placed in cakes. 

The rooms on the ship were not exactly spacious.
I had to go outside of it to change my mind.
   * Speaking of comparisons, the two types of ships had similar rooms. The river boat's rooms featured twin beds that folded into the wall to reveal a couch of sorts underneath. It was rather uncomfortable as a place to rest during the day, and we learned quickly to ask housekeeping to leave the bed down at all times.
   That was very necessary early in the trip for me thanks to a pesky cough and some sneezing. I skipped some events in favor of naps. Going on a long international trip? Bring some cold medicine just in case, or be prepared to figure out how to buy Nyquil in a Cologne pharmacy.

   * The idea behind these trips is for groups to take outings around the port city during the morning, have them go off on their own in the afternoon, and then sail to the next city overnight. That plan was derailed when we were off the boat, as solo wanderings were cut down by necessary bus trips between locations.
   We spent three nights in Frankfurt and three nights in Nuremberg. They are wonderful cities, and it was a joy to get to know them a bit this way. But a side-effect was that there was no break in the action, as the group visited a different city every day until we arrived in Prague for a trip extension (three full days of touring there). Some people skipped some activities just to catch a breath. The stops tend to blend together in memory now, with one German historic district looking like the next.

   * Much of the crew from the two boats was from Eastern Europe, particularly in the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia. Their English was a little weak in spots, but they seemed good-natured enough - particularly when they put on a little show for the passengers. 

   * A tip of the hat goes to Grand Circle for setting some interesting discussions and presentations. We heard from an expert of Jewish history talk about the Holocaust, a political scientist who briefed us on the current situation in Germany,  and a refugee who had gone from Syria to Austria in order to find hope over the course of more than a year. We also saw a glass-blowing demonstration - he sold a lot of stuff afterwards - and visited a house for coffee and cake to chat about Germany life. (To that last point, shame on the other visitors in our group of 10 who didn't bring some sort of gift along to our hostess.)


   We had been scheduled to cruise down an interesting part of the Rhine, with castles and charming towns along the way. But the water was too low for our boat, so we had to take a commercial trip instead. At the end of the three-hour voyage, which was slowed by the low levels of water, our group gathered at a restaurant for an authentic German dinner in Ruedesheim.

   The food was rather bland and tasteless, even for me, but the highlight was the promised German folk band. I will forever maintain that this band played the oddest set in music history. "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" was followed by "Take Me Home, Country Roads." There was "The Happy Wanderer." A polka version of "The Birthday Song." "Sweet Caroline." Some songs in German popped up once in a while. When "The Chicken Dance" broke out and a line extended around the restaurant, people outside of the facility came rushing to the door to see what the heck was going on. They were turned away.

   The night closed with the band playing that German beer hall favorite, "Hallelujah."


   * Even today, it is still hard to escape the presence of World War II in Central Europe.
   Many of the cities we visited were more than 90 percent destroyed by Allied forces in an effort to destroy morale among the Germans. Whether it was necessary or not at that stage of the war (early 1945) is one for the historians. But the rise of the Nazi party from 1933 to 1945 still hangs in the air in that nation, more felt than seen.

   * No one yelled out "American swine!" as our tourist group went by. Even so, conversations with people who lived across the sea from me certainly indicated that the current administration in Washington is less than popular in Central Europe these days.
   I got the sense that the political polarization in America was packed with the luggage by those on the cruise. In other words, some were hesitant to give comments about developments in America, even as Michael Cohen was accepting a plea bargain. It was easy to tune out the world to a degree, since CNN International and CNBC Europe usually were the only useful television channels that were available. But wi-fi was available on the boat and in most city locations, so information was as close as a smartphone. Therefore, when an initial conversation indicated that people were on the same sides of the political spectrum, the words came tumbling out. 
   I did have one moment of conflict, at least internally. We were in Room 600 of the building where the famous Nuremberg trials were held after World War II. The room is still used, and over the judges' heads on the wall was a Catholic cross. The guide pointed out that Bavaria was a Catholic region, and that part of the country had recently allowed such symbols in its court rooms.
   With that, a woman in front of me started to applaud, as did a few others in the room. I was very tempted to say to her, "What part of the separation of church and state don't you agree with?" But it certainly wasn't the time or place for that.

   * Germany is cooking right now economically. Admittedly, we stuck to generally prosperous areas, but the Germans are clearly doing something right. It was particularly noticeable in Frankfurt, a city I knew almost nothing. It is becoming Germany's New York while Berlin is the nation's Washington.
   Germany tried to achieve a superior place in the world through guns in the 20th century on two occasions, and failed spectacularly (thankfully). It might have better luck wielding checkbooks in this century.

   * Speaking of politics, it's interesting that right-wing parties are gaining strength in Germany and left-wingers bordering on Communist tendencies are in key positions in the Czech Republic. Didn't they learn anything from the past?

Yes, they sell a lot of beer in Germany.
I finished this particular glass
   * Do you like cheap beer? Central Europe is your ideal destination. In some places it was cheaper than Coca-Cola or bottled water, particularly when calculated by the ounce. It was all local brands too. As one person in Germany put it, "You can drink Budweiser, or you can drink beer."
   As for soft drinks, the marketing department for Pepsi needs to work harder in Germany. I don't think I saw anything but Coke in the whole country. Soft drinks were served somewhere between chilly and cold, but never ice cold, and portions were surprisingly small at restaurants.

   * Someone came up with a rule for the service in restaurants - the farther the trip went along, the smaller the smiles of restaurant workers became. The pace of service was quite slow too, and it was tough to find someone to order a second drink. But the attendants sure were fast at clearing your plates, not even pausing to ask permission.
   And if you choose to eat outside, which almost everyone in Europe did during a record heat wave, be prepared for company in the form of yellow jackets.

   * There aren't many places to buy clever t-shirts in Europe yet. Give credit to the person in Austria who came up with one with the outline of a certain hopping animal from the Southern Hemisphere with the caption "No Kangaroos in Austria." Luckily a store called Blue in Prague is filled with original items; head there for all your shopping needs.

   * The rock band Kraftwerk came to mind as we drove on Germany's famous Autobahn. ("Fun, fun, fun ...") There were speed limits on the relatively crowded sections, ranging from 50 to 75 mph depending on conditions. It's a modern, efficient system.
   Even the rest stops had their interesting quirks. Change is needed to access the pay toilets, which caused some purchases at the 7-11-type store nearby. There visitors could check out the magazines, which in a couple of cases had topless women on the cover. You don't see that on the New York State Thruway.
   Now that I've put the 1970s song in your head, here's a video:

   * The entire trip was spent in the Central European time zone, which is six hours ahead of East Coast time. This came with some oddities. When I got up at 7 a.m., the West Coast baseball games still were not over. When I turned on the TV at 3 p.m., the only American channels were usually CNN and CNBC Europe. The stock market hadn't even opened yet.

   * Europe has cigarette machines in public places (ID needed for purchase), women with green hair, too much graffiti in most cities, bicycles by the droves (especially in Amsterdam), much more public smoking than America, far more hats with Yankee logos than ones for the Red Sox (boo!), plenty of McDonald's and Starbucks (with a Mexican restaurant in Prague), diesel gasoline that costs less than regular, a 25-cent deposit on bottles (Germany, where the Green Party has essentially won the argument about the necessity for saving the environment - America take note), toilets with two buttons - one for each, um, use, plenty of bookstores and ice cream stands, and no seedless watermelons.

   * The flight from Prague to Philadelphia took nine hours and 18 minutes, and we went back six hours in time in the process. Therefore, August 25 lasted 30 hours for me - the longest day of my life. Literally.

   Early in the flight, someone tried to adjust some overhead luggage - and a bag came out of the container and hit me squarely on the head. Ugh. Luckily it was a soft-shell case. But if someone wants to introduce a Constitutional Amendment forcing airlines to enforce tougher rules about the size of carry-on items, he or she has my support. It is a jungle out there, particularly on the big international flights.


The helicopter pad has to be here somewhere.
   The Hotel Manager said he was asked if the crew stayed on the boat over night. He asked for the question to be repeated out of disbelief, and it was done so.

   "No, they stay in nearby hotels," he answered sarcastically. "We fly them in on helicopters. They arrive on deck at 5 a.m. to start preparing for the day."

   The Hotel Manager thought little about it for a couple of weeks. Then he heard from his boss, who called to roar, "What is going on with your ship?" The HM didn't know what he meant, and the Boss explained that he had gotten a survey back from an unsatisfied customer.

   "The food was great, the crew was wonderful, and the cities were beautiful," the note read, "but I will never stay on a Grand Circle boat again. I never got enough sleep because of the noisy helicopters that were landing on the deck at 5 a.m. to let the crew off."


   We try to accumulate memories on trips like this. There were a bunch of them here.

   * We toured Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, and saw first-hand how she and her family hid from the Nazis for years - only to be captured and executed when the Allies were almost within sight of the Netherlands.

   * We were surrounded by hundreds of years of history just by walking into the courtyards of the Heidelberg Castle. The immense complex has been around in one form or another for almost 800 years, perhaps before the Magna Carta was signed. It's been unused since 1764 - before the American Revolution - but still fascinates to this day.  (By the way, travel writer Rick Steves puts down Heidelberg as a waste of time. He is wrong.)

   * We stood in the area in Nuremberg where the Nazis put on tremendous rallies in order to generate support for their policies, and then sat in the courtroom where they paid for those policies.

   * We listened to one of the world's largest organs of its type belt out some religious music in a 30-minute concert at a church in Passau, Germany. 

   * We heard the music of Mozart and Strauss in a live concert in a beautiful music house in Vienna. Yes, they played "The Blue Danube," where we slept on the boat that night. The next morning, I saw the building where the Congress of Vienna took place in 1814-15.

   * We stood by the building in Bratislava where the Peace of Pressburg was signed in 1805, which marked the demise of the last piece of the Roman Empire.

   * We walked in Wenceslas Square in Prague, almost 50 years to the day from when Soviet tanks came to crush the sliver of freedom that Czechoslovakia had tried to carve out. It also was in that very square in 1989 when Vaclav Havel announced to the people of that country that the Communist government had resigned.

   * We had breakfast in Vienna, lunch in Bratislava, and dinner in Prague on the same day - three meals in three world capitals. This is a record that will never be broken.

   That's a lot of memories, and it doesn't even include the personal moments with new friends accumulated along the way. Good thing I didn't have to declare them at customs. 

(Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB)


Chris Baldwin said...

Love it! The night closed with the band playing that German dance hall favorite, "Hallelujah." HAHAHA

Budd Bailey said...

Come to think of it, Chris, it was more of a German beer hall. So I changed it. Thanks for laughing.

Unknown said...

Great read. Sounds like a fabulous, albeit, spontaneous trip in spots. Thanks for sharing. 😊