Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

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Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

29 September 2011

An Intermission? Or Act III?

Racing along the fogbound coast of Connecticut -- or we may have already entered Rhode Island, I don't know -- and I have to say: the performance of this Amtrak Acela Express train is quite nice. It's not quite as snappy as the high-speed trains in Europe (we're behind schedule: surprise, surprise) but it's cozy, we're moving now at a good clip and you don't have any of the airport BS to deal with. Ought to be more of this kind of thing in this country.

That's right: in THIS country. My country: the United States. I'm back on terra cognito, at least for a litle while. No, I don't know how long. And no, I don't know what's next.

Ostensibly, I came back to the U.S. to check out a sailboat I saw listed for sale in Maryland. It's a European-brand boat that you don't see too often over here in North America, but I saw a lot of them this summer and I was quite impressed. And every time I sat on pondered "where to next" when I was still in the Olde World, I kept coming back to: "but what about the plan to buy a boat and sail away? Will you regret missing out on this boat as you have others?"

So with that in mind, I trucked it to Berlin (flights to the States were cheaper there as compared to Prague or Vienna) and endured a chock-full eight-plus-hour flight to New York City, America's only truly world-class city and one of my least favorite places. Why fly there then? Well, flights to JFK were cheaper than flights to Boston, and my sister currently has some of her photos from the '80s on exhibition in a gallery in Greenwich Village.

As a result, it made for a long day. I got up at 6am Berlin time Wednesday -- midnight on the East Coast of the U.S. -- got no sleep on the flight, then checked out my sister's show (which opened while I was overseas), and it was right about midnight today when the tragi-comedy that is the Boston Red Sox finally ended. I managed to sleep for about four hours but couldn't sleep any longer than that, and why not: at 4am East Coast time it was 10am in Berlin and my body was wide awake. So I walked to Penn Station and boarded this 6:20am train.

And in a couple more hours, my adventures of the summer of 2011 will come to at least a partial close. There are mixed emotions about this, on a lot of different levels.

On the one hand, I was really enjoying the time I spent in some of the great cities of Europe. But on the other hand, they were cities, and I'm very much a country mouse. While I enjoyed Prague, I longed for the solitary beauty of the islands of Norway or the northern coast of Iceland. And what about the planned-for places that I didn't make it to? I opted for Prague and Berlin over the beaches and surf of Scotland and southwest France -- was it better to have altered my plans and follow my whims or did I miss out by not going with my original strategy?

I also enjoyed being in places where English was not the primary language; but it can be tiresome when communication is so challenging. We take our everyday interaction so for granted, never realizing just how much background and "infrastructure" there is to being able to nonchalantly order a cup of coffee. When you have to struggle for the words and the currency and the transaction is filled with a lot of awkward pauses and "uhhs" and "ummms," well, spitting out that Starbuckian mumbo-jumbo -- "grande double mocha this, that and the other thing with two shots and room" -- actually comes easily and makes sense (to a point).

And there are so many things about European culture that I find so "right." The prudish way we in America treat alcohol is juvenile and, as statistics show, ineffective. How refreshing to sit outside at a cafe and enjoy a glass of wine. But by the same token, the staggering amount of second-hand smoke I endured over the past three weeks I'm sure scarred my lungs forever. And would someone please explain the concept of lines or queues to Euros?

All of which is to say: it was nice to be out of one's comfort zone for a bit, just as it's nice to be back in it for at least a little while. Sure, the old saying that the great part about traveling is that you get to go home is true. But in my current state, I don't know what, exactly, I'm coming home to. A reentry into society and Corporate America? A reentry into Alaska/California/New England/take your pick? Or is there a new M.O. on my horizon, one I'm vaguely aware of but still means new territory?

There are also potential future steps that are new. What if that sailboat in Maryland (or another one I found a couple of days ago in Maine) works out, shall I head to the islands for the winter and get on with chasing that dream of old? Or maybe I'll ditch a lot of the gear I'm lugging around, repack my suitcase (lighter this time) and head back out on the road: I could see some new territory that way, including those planned-for places I missed this time around. Hell, maybe it's time for the southern hemisphere? I don't know. I have to confess: the traveling, particularly traveling alone, is getting tiring. Perhaps it's time to settle in, pick something and someplace and someone, and be content with one horizon. Or maybe there's another sign just around the corner...

I always say I'm waiting for that sign from the universe and it occurs to me now that I've had my sign all along. It manifests itself in a myriad of ever-changing ways and one of my favorite incarnations is in a quote a friend sent me earlier this summer. It's by the late comedienne Gilda Radner and it goes; "Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next."

That's what I've been doing all this summer; hell, in the lead-up to this summer and practically for my whole life, too. When I moved to California in 2007 it became my ninth state driver's license. On top of that, I lived in Germany and Finland back in the late '80s. When others were settling down to contentment and that one horizon, I was packing up and going to check out another place that interested me. I'm not saying my path is better or worse than those others but I am saying it's mine. This whole summer, whenever I was debating between next stops and next steps, I was "having to change" and "making the best of it." I did the same when I decided to play hockey in Europe, to take a job in the '90s with something new called "the internet," to finally move to Alaska full-time, and even when I decided to leave Alaska. No, it's not conducive to long-term planning and goal-setting, not when your time period is a lifetime or even just that part of a lifetime deemed "adulthood." That lack of long-term vision has a price -- witness my relationship track record for a detailed accounting -- but "making the best of it" also has a benefit: a breadth of experiences and insights gleaned from those experiences that I wouldn't trade for anything. Sure I envy some of my friends who've taken different paths, but in the end, as Robert Frost put it, "I chose the one less traveled and that has made all the difference."

I love Gilda's quote, especially when you realize it comes from someone whose life was cut tragically short. Gilda knew the finite nature of life in very clear terms: she was on her way out when she uttered these words. Fact: we all -- every single one of us who has ever been and ever will be -- wind up in the same place. If you can truly say that you're "making the best of it" and enjoying yourself while you do, well, you're having as successful a life as anyone possibly can. Congratulations and thanks for playing!

Oh, and one other good thing about this Acela Express train: onboard wifi. But I'm gonna hold off on publishing this until I get home...I'm planning on surprising my parents. That should be entertaining...

27 September 2011

More Ghosts

I should have known that coming to all these Olde World cities was going to result in paranormal activity. But after a full day of tromping around Berlin, there's no escaping our collective past. And in Berlin, that past is even more present than it was in Prague.

From the Nazi atrocities to the communist oppression that followed, Berlin is chock full of heinous pasts. And as nice and modern as so much of this city is now, the reminders are everywhere. Memorials to Jewish victims, remnants of the Berlin Wall, the martial imagery leveraged by the Nazis at the Olympic Stadium and the image of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals...Berlin is haunted more than any city I've ever visited. Yes, the locals are cleaning it up in that oh-so-efficient German style, but there are some stains that will never come off.

I was wondering today, while I walked around parts of Berlin that were off-limits to me the last time I was here, 22 years ago: is it better to have experienced that thankfully-now-gone world? Or is it better to be like the kids and 20-somethings I saw goofing off all over town and have zero first-hand knowledge of that kind of oppression? To those kids, the Potsdamer Platz is a stylish, happenin' square with cool buildings and a lot going on; to me, it's a place that was ground zero for Cold War tensions for 50 years. Is it better to be blissfully ignorant? Or is it better to have those memories and know what human beings are capable of?

And maybe it's because I'm an American and I take pride in the impact that a countryman made during the 1936 Olympics here in Berlin, but the way the Nazis used the architecture of those Games really pissed me off. I actually got angry at various points as I toured the grounds because I knew what would follow a couple of years after the Games were over. But then I had to realize: we've done the same thing. In fact, the Los Angeles Coliseum was touted as a model for the Berlin Olympic Stadium. And as imposing as the Reichstag is, is it any different from our Capital Building in Washington, D.C.?

I might lose some people here but I'm gonna throw something out there: What event in modern times parallels the Reichstag fire? What event prompted a diminution of freedoms in the name of security? The only thing I could come up with is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Reichstag Fire Decree or the Patriot Act: is there really a difference?

And there's a similarity between the Nazi inner circle and those in power in 2001 that occurred to me: the Germans touted this genetic ideal -- an ideal that none of them even remotely resembled. Along similar lines, the hawks in power in 2001 touted patriotism and a military response to threats -- even though they all ducked service in the '60s when it was their time. In both cases, a small group of power-hungry assholes held up an ideal that all citizens had to adhere to -- except they themselves in their little clique, of course. No, we haven't engulfed the world in war as a result, but hey, our troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan 10 years later.

Perhaps Santayana was right: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If that's true, the heavy history of the 20th century, particularly here in Berlin, hopefully continues to educate. And as carefree as those kids cavorting on the subway might seem, those ghosts have to be unavoidable to someone who grows up here. I only hope our isolation far away across the ocean doesn't insulate us and keep those ghosts from haunting us as a society.

26 September 2011

Schlachthof Funf

Speaking of eerie vibes: we're passing through Dresden, Germany, right now and all I can think of is that Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

It was here in Dresden on a night in 1945 that Allied warplanes dropped so many bombs at one time that it created a firestorm, incinerating more civilians than we did a short while later with the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It was an event chronicled by Kurt Vonnegut in his classic novel, "Slaughterhouse Five."

Obviously I can only see what's visible from the train but Dresden looks to be a clean, modern city, far removed from the bleak East German days of communist rule. It's set in a broad valley with modern apartment towers and one old church steeple standing out against a blue sky, the whole scene much more 21st century than the more pastoral scenes just an hour ago in the Czech Republic.

I've no idea if the subterranean slaughterhouse in which Vonnegut and other prisoners of war survived the firebombing still exists, and if it does, if there's anything that marks the event. It kinda looks as though Dresden has cleaned up and moved on. But as a big Vonnegut fan, there are ghosts here, too.

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Dateline: Prague

In addition to being a beautiful city, Prague has an atmosphere about it that is so palpable you can taste it. And if you don't believe me, consider the works of one who grew up there: Franz Kafka.

I hit the Kafka Museum while in Prague and really the only way to describe is "Kafkaesque." You learn about the writer's history, what shaped his singular view of the world, in a pretty straightforward manner that you would expect in a museum. But thrown in for good measure are several audiovisual displays -- slide shows, videos and so forth -- that either leave you scratching your head or giving you more insight to a mindset that I'm pretty sure most of us can't quite get our heads around (not and stay sane, that is). It was actually pretty cool and I did come away feeling like I'd gained a bit more of an ability to understand Kafka, which is not something I could lay claim to beforehand.

But I think a lot of that might have had to do with my wanderings around the city. Prague's cobblestone streets and twisty, turny alleys and soft nighttime lighting and prodigious religious statuary -- just its aura -- give it a vibe that here be dragons. Ghosts, if you will. The only place I've ever felt an aura like Prague's is New Orleans, but there it's a bit more sinister, more voodoo. In Prague it's not necessarily sinister though the city's history could make it seem so. Rather, it's like a fog, a cloud of history and time -- LONG time -- that hangs over the city, in every dark corner and around every turn. It's there; you feel it.

And if you were an impressionable young Jewish kid in a place with Prague's history and some serious daddy issues thrown in for good measure, it's not difficult to see how you might wind up penning some kinda-out-there literary works.

Má Vlast

Prague Castle skyline at night

I'm listening to Smetana's ode to his Czech homeland, Má Vlast, as I coast along the Vltava River on the train, half an hour out of Prague. It's a gorgeous piece of music (thanks, H) and is a moving testament to this river and this beautiful country.

And it is a beautiful country. From the time I crossed the border last week, northbound from Munich, the Czech countryside was enticing in all its green. Yes, green. Rolling, forested hills interspersed with farmed valleys and pastures, all appeared to glisten, glowing as though it had just rained a few minutes ago and now the sun had come out and was reflected in a billion dew drops. Creeks and rivers in varying shades of silver through brown (complete with fly fishermen in a couple of spots) provided an accent on the emerald shades, and kestrels hovered over fields of past-their-prime sunflowers, pointing out the imminent autumn equinox just a few days away. Orchards of apple trees heavy with fruit reminded one of the good harvest that also loomed.

True, along many of the rivers defunct factories and barges sat idle and rusting, forlorn and calling to mind darker days from the past. But as quickly as the industry had appeared it was swallowed up again by the forest and the hills and the river, along with backyard gardens the exploded in the red of roses and other flowers. And around many bends, small solar-power farms shared ground with sheep pastures, pointing toward a much different future. It was an interesting juxtaposition: the white, fleecy animals carelessly munching away amid the black sheets of silicon set on racks a few feet above the ground.

And then the train pulled into Prague. I'm on record as saying Prague is the prettiest city I've ever seen and I'm not backing off that assertion. Gorgeous chapels and cathedrals, some extravagantly ornate while others are subdued in their simplicity, occupy pockets throughout the city. Statues and towers appear out of nowhere and even common apartment buildings sport intricate decoration from various periods throughout this city's long history. If you're a fan of architecture, you really need to see Prague. This city has it all and it's all of amazing quality.

The cathedral at Prague Castle

Gargoyle on the cathedral at the Prague Castle

On top of all that -- literally -- is the famous Prague Castle. Perched on a hill overlooking the river, the castle is more like a small city all contained within ramparts than simply a castle. There are multiple churches, including a magnificent cathedral, massive structures housing Czech official business, and numerous other buildings housing everyday businesses and shops. And every last bit of construction within the castle walls is stunning in its quality, its painstaking detail, its scale and its sheer beauty. The Prague Castle is, figuratively and literally, the crown jewel of the city.

But there's a whole other side of the city, too. I took a tour of the underground Prague, the remains of the old city going back to 1300 and even earlier. Apparently the current city has basically been built on top of the original city in an attempt to get the city above the flooding waters of the Vltava. As a result, many of the shops and bars and restaurants in the city look modern and nondescript from the outside -- but then you get inside and descend to huge cellars that have been reclaimed and redone with the same sensibility that created the gorgeous old architecture elsewhere in town.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague's city center.

Detail in the Astronomical Clock...looks like something from a Grateful Dead album cover

On the underground tour, you also learn of the rather morbid history of this area and how wonderful people have been to each other over the millennia. You hear of this saint, who was killed when he was six years old because he was Christian. And then you learn about that king who was murdered by his aunt, who also killed the queen and the queen's kids. Then there's guy who crafted the astronomical clock in the city center: it's such a beautiful piece of exquisite craftsmanship that the powers that be burned out the guy's eyes so he could never build another one. How's that for an incentive plan?

And amid all this incredible inhumanity over eons there looms the shadow of the inhumanity that happened for most of the 20th century. Everywhere you go you can't help but be haunted by the institutionalized oppression of the communist era: it leaps out at you precisely because it's inconceivable that such a beautiful place with such an ornate look at every turn could have been beaten down by such a gray blandness. That such beauty survived such a relentless and lowest-common-denominator approach to life is a testament to an enduring spirit that the Czechs must have. Between Chamberlain's betrayal in 1939 and the subsequent Nazi oppression, followed by 50 years of communist abuse, it's a wonder that Prague is now considered "the new Paris." But the Czechs are survivors; they have to be: being here in the middle of everything they've been run over countless times since humans have lived in Europe. And through it all they created (and preserved) what is the prettiest city I've ever seen.

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21 September 2011

Ein Prosit

The Oktoberfest beer tent of my fave German brewer: Augustiner. Prost!

Right off the bat, let me restate something I've been saying for 22 years: Oktoberfest (or "Wiesn" as they call it locally) is the best party on the planet. Period. Imagine your own state fair -- or for you friends in SoCal, the San Diego Fair -- multiplied by a million. Yes, a million. (For Alaska friends, it's the AK Fair times 10 billion.) Now you're getting close to Oktoberfest in Munich.

The beer tents at Oktoberfest are not tents, they're convention centers. I'm not kidding. And each Bavarian brewery has at least one on the grounds.

The festival also has the best thrill rides I've ever ridden, Disneyland included (sorry, Cher).

And there's food everywhere, most of it oh-so-tasty but horrible for you, yet not on the level of the deep-fried Snickers bars you see at state fairs. And some of the food is completely legitimate health-wise and simply fantastic. I went for lunch one day just to make sure I could savor one of the oven-roasted half-chickens. Wunderbar! I don't know what kind of spices they use but the result is a succulent feast. And I was ecstatic to learn that the Augustiner still makes its mushroom soup the way they did two decades ago: the soup is so thick you can stand your spoon up in the bowl. It's a meal in itself and simply magnificent.

Finally there's the people-watching. Oktoberfest isn't really about the beer and food and the rides, it's about the people. Everyone (including American tourists who really ought to know better) are decked out in lederhosen and dirndls, and the result is often humorous (in the case of the men in their lederhosen) and tantalizing (in the case of the women in their dirndls).

Especially the latter. They really ought to call Weisn the Push-Up-Bra-Fest. If I owned a lingerie company, I'd be over here in Bavaria throughout the summer pitching my product to every woman in southern Germany. Every single woman wants her cleavage -- no matter how much or how little she might have -- out there for all to see. I met author Jim Harrison at a signing once and we got to discussing a mutual friend at Sports Illustrated, about which he complained that the swimsuit issue was "all tits and not enough ass; it's like the NASCAR of women." Jim Harrison probably wouldn't like Oktoberfest, but I sure did, and the dirndls do offer the redemption of being great for showing off women's legs.

As for the thrill rides, the roller coaster features five full loops that get ever tighter, resulting in increased G forces and more fun per second. The view out over Munich from the highest point, right after the ride starts so you're still going slowly, is beautiful. And there's no eight-mile-long line like there is at every amusement park you've been to.

The flying swings (I don't know what you call them: the ride where you're in a swing that goes in a circle way up high) at Wiesn take you up to a height of 50 meters over the festival grounds, giving you another phenomenal view of the city (albeit at fairly high speed). And there were a couple of new rides that got riders inverted and twisted and topsy-turvy, though I didn't bother to buy a seat; but just watching them was enough to make me giggle. How people can take such rides after drinking a bunch of Oktoberfest beer is beyond me. Tip: hit the rides during the day, before you hit the beer tents.

Ah, yes, those beer tents....

There are a few things you should know before you arrive in Munich looking to get stupid drunk while joyously singing "Ein Prosit" with your new German buddies.

For starters, Oktoberfest beer isn't very good. It's stronger than normal beer and has a higher alcohol content, but it doesn't taste very good -- even Germans will tell you that. It's certainly not as good as the Bavarian breweries' normal concoctions. However, it comes in those gigantic glasses that we Yanks call "steins," so combine its strength with that kind of quantity and if you're looking to get schnockered, Oktoberfest beer is your tool.

The problem is getting your hands on one. When I was here 22 years ago, I was playing for a local hockey team, a team that had a player whose father owned a small restaurant-bar in the area. As a result, we had a reserved table and a dedicated server -- we partied like rock stars and I had the hangover for two days to prove it. And when I went on other days I was still in a group of locals who were known; we got great service.

If you're on own it doesn't matter how authentic your lederhosen is, you're up a creek. Ask if a seat is free and you'll get nothing but scowls from those already seated -- even when a kindly beer server is asking on your behalf. You'll wind up standing around the perimeter of the table area hoping to catch the eye of a beer server as she goes by. And if you're a foreigner, you have a better chance of being invited to lead the band in song than you do of getting a seat at a table in one of the beer tents. The bottom line is: Parisians are a hell of a lot nicer than Muencheners, if you can believe it.

But there are solutions. Go during the day and you'll have room, just don't expect the raucous partying that goes on at night. And given the aforementioned strength of the Oktoberfest beer, you can write off your afternoon and evening if you stay for more than one beer.

Oktoberfest beer is a lubricant and its viscosity rivals anything Castrol puts into its high-performance race-car formula -- and the evening scene in the beer tents is a Formula One race with Reifenstahlian overtones. It's a miracle there aren't any brawls during the fortnight of Oktoberfest, but if you combine the nonstop singalongs, the uniform dress and the "eins, zwei, g'suffa!" gestures, it's not hard to envision how these people wound up in brown uniforms marching in goose-step formation. Thankfully Oktoberfest is all fun, but it's easy to look at an Oktoberfest beer tent during the singing of "Ein Prosit" and understand how "a people" are not the same as a "group of persons." But then the band starts into a new tune and the entire beer tent is screaming, "Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong, West Virginia!" in bad, imitation-Schwarzenegger accents and you're back into homogenized-frat-party mode.

The bottom line is that Oktoberfest is a tremendously good time. And it's completely family-safe (they even have deals on all the rides on Tuesday, which is known as "family day"). If you're all about the beer tents and rockin' out to cliche polka tunes, I highly recommending securing a reserved table, however you can do it, but I'd also allow time for the rides.

I'm glad I went back to Oktoberfest. Do I need to go again? No, I don't need to...but I suspect I will. Someday. Prost!

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19 September 2011

Further Ruminations on Art

Full disclosure: I had zero interest in going to the Louvre while I was in Paris. Being swarmed by 50,000 tourists all clamoring to get a Chevy Chase-like glimpse of the Mona Lisa was not my idea of a good time.

But I did catch the Musee d'Orsay and the Musee Rodin. And in both places I took up an internal discussion I've had going for some time. It's nothing new; in fact, the discussion is one that billions of people have been having since time immemorial. It's a question of art: what is it? What constitutes quality in art? And why does it matter?

As I looked at various pieces of art in the two museums, some of them really moved me and others didn't. Some that were especially powerful had me contemplating time and the meaning of life and death, and what the subjects of the painting (or sculpture) must have thought they felt the artist was capturing.

For instance: the prevalence of classic themes such as angels and morality made me wonder about whether such themes even matter. I mean: if we're really all about biology (remember Snowden's secret in "Catch-22"), does striving to lead a good but simple life as a farmer in ancient times really matter? Why should it matter that that two lovers embracing are married to other people given the all-consuming passion they're obviously feeling? And what does the subject of that statue feel when he realizes that those viewing this monument to his all-too-short life won't really be able to tell who it is without being told by the artist?

But not all great art deals with the big questions. Or does it and I am just too simple to make the leap? The various still lifes done by great artists aren't really about anything but a moment in time, right? But maybe they're really about that moment and its relation to the continuum of time?

ARGH! I don't know and it makes my head hurt to consider such things...but in a good way. Art makes you think and feel, and if it doesn't, check your pulse because you may already be dead.

But then there's the question of quality: what makes one piece better than an other? I know nothing of technique, nothing of the methods artists use to create emotion in a piece of work. But does that even matter? If a piece evokes strong emotion does it matter that it's not technically "good?" Do Monet's brush strokes make his paintings better than Gauguin's or is it the subject matter that's most important?

When I first came to jazz I asked a buddy of mine who had seen Miles Davis and John Coltrane play live what made certain pieces of jazz good (I'm looking at you here, Five-O Jay). As was his style, my friend evaded the question, but he did turn me on to some of the greats and for that I'm grateful.

I don't know what makes Miles so great but I do know that when I hear "Kind of Blue" I feel better -- about me, about people in general, about the world, if only for a little while. Similarly, I don't know why seeing certain paintings makes me ponder and analyze and contemplate, but they do -- before I run back to the comfort of a non-analytical life.

This debate about the nature and meaning of art is a good thing. It makes me feel more alive, makes my brain (and heart and soul) feel more engaged and vibrant, then I do when I'm not so prompted. That might be what I like most about Paris: the constant evocation of such feelings the emphasis on art provokes.

An American in Paris

So, what do you want to hear about? I could go into the places I went and the sights I saw here in the City of Lights, but you know what the Eiffel Tower is like, you know what Sacre Coeur is like. You're in Paris, you gotta do 'em (or some of 'em, at least).

I hit my share of cliche Paris attractions but I skipped a lot of them, too. In keeping with the mode I've been in all summer -- being a tourist via sailboat, you're perceived by the locals much differently than if you just stepped off an airliner -- I was trying to immerse myself in some semblance of the Parisian lifestyle, however briefly.

To that end, I rented a small house/apartment, I didn't stay in a hotel. I used and the place I wound up in was cozy, comfortable and quite charming. It featured a loft area with a big, comfy bed, and a main-floor living area with a kitchen and bathroom. The place was off the street: you'd pass through the coded front door and then a small courtyard. Unlock the gate and travel down a narrow outdoor corridor between rose-covered walls, walking on a cobblestone path before turning right, through an ivy-covered gate and into a small patio of your own. It really was an oasis, a haven from the city that seemed light years away through those doors.

Not that it needed to be. The area I was in -- the 17th arrondissement -- was nice and also useful. I was a two-minute walk from the La Fourche stop on the Metro's 13 line, in the trendy Batignolles district. There were plenty of cliche ethnic restaurants (Turkish, Italian, Indian), plenty of brasseries and bars with sidewalk drinking and dining, and useful services such as a supermarket 100 meters from my front door in one direction and a coin-operated laundromat 50 meters in the other. All things considered, I dug being somewhat out of the mainstream -- not in the 7th or 8th, for instance -- but having easy access via the Metro to any destination in town.

And tour Paris I did. I typically made a mental note of a place or two I wanted to see, or more likely a general area I wanted to head toward, and then I'd just wander. As a result, I covered a ton of ground -- which I also dug since it enabled me to see and experience a wide range of Paris. I like to think it helped me learn some things along the way.

For instance, what a change from England to Paris in one major way. In the former, you can't smoke anywhere public anymore, not even football matches or pubs. In Paris, everyone smokes everywhere. Kids, adults; men, women; indoors, outdoors. OK, that's not true: they couldn't smoke inside the bars or restaurants but that meant they just stepped outside the door and created a nice fog for you to walk through on the way out. And by the time 90 minutes of football was over at the Parc des Princes, my lungs felt like those of an asthmatic with a bad case of pneumonia. Not pleasant.

And what is it with the women smoking? Who told them that smoking makes them look good? I'm sorry if it's a double-standard (though it's not because I detest smoking by anyone regardless of gender), but talk about a turnoff.

Which is a shame because the beauty on display in Paris was awe-inspiring. There's such a focus on style and fashion and just plain looking good that even unattractive people looked, well, good. Obviously, this doesn't apply to me but that's why I'm able to offer this observation: I was on the outside looking in. A dispassionate observer, if you will.

Maybe it's just a result of the city's size, maybe it's the same thing in New York. But as a fan of beauty, I quite enjoyed the scenery in Paris.

Which is not to say that I took a lot of photos. In fact, I didn't take any. I shot two quickie photos with my iPhone of the Champs Elysee, but not once did I take my real SLR out of the bag. Nothing from atop the Eiffel Tower or Montmartre; nothing from the garden at the Rodin Museum; nothing from along the Seine. Not that any of the photos would have been any good anyway: every location that I might have shot had eight gazillion people swarming around. So the memories will have to suffice.

Though I might look into making more memories. One thing that occurred to me while in Paris was that if I were going to do city living, I think I'd do it somewhere overseas. I am most assuredly NOT a city mouse so if I were going to live someplace as foreign as a city I'd just as soon do it in a place where EVERYTHING is that foreign: the language, the culture, the mentality...everything. And I may just do that. I was looking into apartments in Paris before I left.

That may or may not come to pass. I find myself torn between heading back to someplace a little lower key (Reykjavik? Back to Alaska?) or even heading back to the States...I'm even feeling an urge to get back into the game with regard to working for someone else. Hell, I'm even very intrigued by a sailboat that's for sale in Maryland right now; I may go check it out in the next week or two.

But living in Paris really intrigues me. No, it's not a case of a fan doing something oh-so-Hemingwayesque because really, that era is so long gone that any attempt to recreate that Lost Generation thing is more doomed to failure than Deadheads thinking a Further show is gonna recreate a show with Jerry on guitar (and, to be honest, my zeal for Hemingway fades as I age). But it does feel as though maybe going out of my comfort zone -- living someplace where I don't have easy, regular access to the things I normally do and love such as surfing, fishing, hiking, hockey, etc. -- might be a good way to force a really deep dive into the creative side.

And Paris is someplace that really encourages the creative side. The emphasis on art at the high end and style at the everyday low end can't help but encourage one's creative side to come out. Standing in the Musee d'Orsay and contemplating a painting by Monet inspires whether you want it to or not. Contemplating what in the world Rodin had going through his mind as he created The Gates of Hell gets you thinking about what it means to be alive and be human even if the main thing you care about in life is how the Red Sox are doing.

To experience the art that is all around in Paris -- from the buskers on the Metro to the masters in the museums to the hacks sketching Notre Dame to listening to the whispers of departed greats at the Pere Lechaise cemetery and other historic sites around town -- and the importance placed on art by the French as a whole makes you want to go out and create something of your own, something that puts your voice out there into the universe. Tapping into that urgency might be worth exploring.

And in that case, maybe that would be doing something Hemingwayesque. As I said: there's no way to resurrect anything resembling the Lost Generation. Literature is so discounted in modern American society that there may not be enough would-be writers left to fill even a bar or bookstore discussing their work. And there's nothing like a just-concluded world war to cause a great sea of people asking the big questions; nowadays everyone just seems to want to know how to get their own piece of the pie. It seems as though the whole world is just so jaded now. But settling into a foreign culture in order to enforce the living of an artistic life, well, if that's what Papa and the others were up to then maybe I ought to sign up.

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13 September 2011

Dateline: Beneath the English Channel

That's right: I'm currently underwater AND underground. I'm aboard the Eurostar, the high-speed train from London to Paris, after a couple of days in the UK. I had originally planned to head to Scotland after my days on Polar Bear, but it turned out that my sister-in-law and two eldest nieces were going to Paris, so I figured I'd join them there for a bit. Since I was always planning on heading to France while over here in Europe, this development simply sped up the process.

The two-plus days in London were interesting. It's been -- gulp -- 35 years since I was last in the city, and that visit was for about 24 hours or so, as best as I can recall. I remember playing rounders, a precursor to baseball, in a park with a bunch of locals who were the children of a friend of my mother's, and I remember being the cliché boorish American -- even at 10 years of age. I was yelling and screaming and win-win-win and...ugh. I recoil to this day at the image of my behavior.

This time, I was slightly more subdued. The emphasis on this visit, however, like the last one was sports: I caught two English Premier League matches in two days, and was thoroughly entranced by both.

In the first, a sunny afternoon at Craven Cottage saw Fulham host Blackburn. Craven Cottage is pastoral site for a football match, with swans and rowers passing alongside on the Thames making the scene all the more scenic. The match played out to a 1-1 draw; not surprising since neither team is exactly setting the Premiership on fire at the start of this season.

One other point worth mentioning about the match: the moment of silence observed before the opening kickoff to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tourist attacks was without question the most sincere and deeply moving moment of silence I've ever experienced at a sporting event. Perhaps that was due to the fact that there was an American, Clint Dempsey, on the pitch, but whatever the reason, it moved me to tears. Indeed, the memory of the sincerity of the local fans in their gesture is getting me choked up now.

Last night, the 12th of September, I caught the Queens Park Rangers-versus-Newcastle United match at the former's Loftus Road stadium. "Cozy" is putting it mildly: at Loftus Road I had neighbors' elbows in both sides, knees in my back and head at my knees -- and I had paid for good seats. And good seats they were: at midfield, about six such rows from the pitch, on which there was less than a meter to the touchline.

I've been a fan of the Premier League to varying degrees for a while now, but seeing the players this close made the game a whole new experience for me. Full disclosure: I was always a horrible soccer player. Truly awful. So I'm not trying to build the pros up because I fancy myself as being just a notch below them. But the fact remains: watching the skills of those players and the precision with which they played the game was hypnotic. The split-second timing and execution was magnificent -- and we're not talking about a lot of international-caliber players in this particular game. Color me way more impressed than I was before.

This match ended in a 0-0 draw, somewhat surprising since Newcastle is off to a great start this season and Queens Park featured five new signees playing their first match for the squad.

While both games ended up in kissing-your-sister outcomes, the experiences made the trip so worth the venture. The cozy parks where the games were played were like cleaned-up versions of the pitch where your kids play. Craven Cottage and Loftus Road are such intimate venues that they make Fenway Park seem like the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

Beyond the football, I cruised the underground (which is not, as Otto in "A Fish Called Wanda" believed, a terrorist organzation), drank Guinness on tap, wandered Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square and Covent Gardens and Trafalgar Square, and got the next stages of my European travels in order.

Which has led me here: racing across the French countryside fast? Two hundred miles an hour? Whatever the speed, it was slightly unnerving as we stormed through southeastern England at that pace, the buildings and highways whirring by in a blur. Here in France, the farms and fields and villages -- all with red, ceramic-roofed homes and a stone church with steeple -- are more easily digested, visually, than the mayhem of urban and suburban England.

Which brings up another point I wanted to make: I rode a train into London on Sunday from Oxfordshire, northwest of London. I'd spent the night in a tiny little inn above a pub in a tiny little village out there in the English countryside. It was a wonderful place to stay and I felt oh-so-propah driving to the train station in the sun the next morning. All I needed was a tweed jacket, some leather driving gloves and a wool cap and I'd have made the very picture of a gent.

But what caught my attention was this: we were a brief, hour-long train ride from the heart of London, and yet this was full-on rural countryside. And that's when it hit me: freeways are the scourge of the United States. If I'd been back in the U.S., that area would have been infested with subdivisions, strip malls and shopping centers, the farms and fields having long since been paved over. And why? Because we'd have built a couple of God-awful freeways enabling suburbia to sprawl out there, bedroom communities sprouting like mushrooms from a dung heap.

Instead, driving in the UK is a more genteel activity. Slower, to be sure, but less stressful than back home. Granted, it's a much smaller country so taking your time still enables you to cover the length and breadth of the place fairly quickly. But lacking the sterile and utilitarian blacktop that we have in the U.S. has helped the UK retain its non-urban areas. I feel kinda sorry for us after having experienced what a viable rail system can do for a country.

Or countries, plural. This high-speed thing is awesome: comfortable, clean and without all the hassles of airports and snotty security people and indifferent airlines. I could get used to traveling like this.

And perhaps I shall. I'll spend six days in Paris (where I rented a small house, a cheaper and better option than a hotel room) and then head on to Munich, where I've not been since I was playing hockey near there back, oh, 21 or 22 years ago. And I'll be there for Oktoberfest, no less. Just a coincidence, I assure you. After that, we shall see.

But for now, my destination is the Gare du Nord in Paris in an hour-and-change, so to get in the spirit I've been enjoying a little vin rouge avec a croissant. Oh la la!

09 September 2011

Moonlight Sonata


I realize it's 3am, but this is the kind of night you dream about -- well, that I dream about -- as a sailor.

I went topside at 11:30pm, half an hour before our midnight watch, to see what the weather was like, figure out which clothes I would need for the midnight watch, and find out why we were still on a starboard tack headed southeast. Emerging from the hatch, I was greeted by a cloudless sky filled with a myriad of stars and a daytime-bright, almost-full moon. Not a manmade light was in sight from horizon to horizon: no ships, no oil rigs, nothing. And to further improve the scene, seas were calm and the wind was a nice and steady 20-ish knots. Oh was setting up for one of those perfect midnight watches.

For the first hour of our watch, we continued southeast with the nearly full moon to the south off our starboard beam. The white moonlight reflecting off the water was bright enough to read by (almost) and served as a shiny, shimmering axis, a rod used by a puppeteer to control a marionette to guide us along our track.

It was really too bright a moon for deep-sky stargazing, but away from city lights all the big-name constellations and sky patterns were readily visible. Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila and the summer triangle of their brightest stars Vega, Deneb and Altair were slowly setting in the west signaling the winding down of summer. Off our stern, the Big and Little Dippers pointed the way north and showed us from where we'd just come. Overhead, all of the players from the Perseus myth were present: Perseus himself, along with Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pegasus. King of the gods and planets, Jupiter blazed brightly in the southeast while just a touch north, rising in the east, the Pleiades and Taurus the bull heralded the coming of autumn...and winter beyond.

Just before 1am, we tacked over for the straight-line run toward Newcastle. And though clouds started rolling in at that point, it was no matter: the continued spectacular sailing -- seven-plus knots and right on the ideal track for our destination -- and the joy of an hour of perfect, dark skies kept the high intact. Even the Finnish sourpuss exalted in the conditions, especially when Polar Bear hit eight knots while he was at the helm.

The spell finally broke a bit, not long before we finished our watch, as the loom of the lights of Newcastle and an antenna somewhere along the coast came into view. As if to counter the intrusion, Orion began his climb out of the sea back behind us to the east.

Whew. Sorry about that. Sorry to wax rhapsodic to the point of sounding like a greeting card or one of those posters teenagers put on their wall when they hit their I-wanna-be-taken-seriously phase, but it really was a perfect way to wind up the trip -- that was likely our final watch as our ETA is 9:30-ish in the morning and we're not on again until 10.

It was the kind of nighttime watch I love and never get enough of; the kind that makes me want to head right back to the States, buy my own boat and take off. Relax, Mom...not that that will actually happen: I don't think I could get any boat ready to head to the Caribbean in time for a Nov. 1 departure, and after that it's getting a little late in the season.

But a night like this (along with yesterday's rollicking sleigh ride) goes a long way toward redeeming -- or at least helping me overlook -- some of the shortcomings that have occurred on this summer trip. Combine these couple of days with the sights and scenes of the Shetlands, the Lofoten, Iceland and Greenland, and some of the great people I've met along the way, and it really does make for a summer of adventure. Perhaps even the summer of my life.

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THE Sailing Day of the Trip

So, two days out from being over and done with this summer-long journey, we wind up having what may have been the best day sailing so far.

It started with the fresh breeze out of Lerwick, which persisted south of the Shetlands. And contrary to forecasts -- not that they've been right once this summer -- the winds persisted through the course of my 6-9pm watch.

We maintained an eight- to 10-knot speed for the three-hour run, and though the Finns were, let's call them "directionally challenged" at the helm, we made a good, 25-plus-mile run. The sun went down in a blaze of pink cirrus clouds as the waxing gibbous moon rose in the southeast. And by the time we went off watch, we'd reached Duncansby Head, the northern tip of the mainland of Scotland. Even the Finns weren't scowling as much as usual.

On top of that, we even had a fly-by by a tall ship. The three-masted behemoth, with sails flying from all the yardarms, appeared on the southwest horizon as an amorphous shape -- an island where there wasn't supposed to be one. As it grew bigger and began to take shape, we could see the brilliant white canvas driving the ship downwind to the northeast. And as she moved past our stern, the lowering sun brightened the fields of canvas into a mirage, an image from a bygone era: a lone tall sailing ship plying a foamy, spray-soaked sea beneath a cloud-streaked sky that spoke of rain to come.

The ship disappeared into the haze on the horizon, as anonymously as it had appeared. Norway's tall ship headed home after a summer abroad? Seems a likely bet.

Our 3-6am watch that followed was, however, a tad anticlimatic as we came topside amid a field of North Sea oil platforms, ships servicing the platforms and a now-lessened wind that had us full-on motoring to the south. The lights from the plaforms were such that it felt like we'd gone to sleep in the middle of the wilderness and awakened in the middle of Times Square. On top of that, the flames spewing from the tops of the oil rigs recalled nothing more than the drive through the environs of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Oh well. 'Twas great while it lasted. In all, we covered about 176 miles in the 24 hours after leaving Lerwick. Now we're still full-on motoring but the wind has swung through our bow and is now coming from the southeast and building. My watch team is about to go on duty at 2pm, a watch that will run through 4pm. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to roll out the yankee headsail and maybe get our speed back up into the eights and nines (we're in the mid-sevens right now), and maybe even get in a bit of steering. Yes, with the Finns at the wheel we'll cover more ground than if we let the autopilot keep us on the straight and narrow. But if it placates them even a little bit, it'll be worth it.

Two watches to go, in all likelihood: 2-6pm and then 12midnight-3am. We should be nearing the River Tyne around 10am, the time we're supposed to be on next, which means everyone will be on deck and Boogie will be at the wheel. The countdown continues...

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08 September 2011

Down The Homestretch They Come

And of course, since the trip is almost over, the sailing conditions are now spectacular.

We left Lerwick this morning amid a nice westerly breeze. The island being to our west, that meant that the wind was moving us along nicely but the seas remained calm. And move along nicely we did: we were over 10 knots for a good chunk of the run south along Mainland Shetland, as it's known.

Now we're out from under the southern tip of the island, exposed to the open ocean to the west. And though the seas are rough and rolly, the sailing is still spectacular.

I should say "motorsailing" as opposed to "sailing" because we've left the engine running, which is giving the wind, and us, a bit of help. While the droning of the damned diesel usually annoys the hell out of me, not this time. For one thing, with the engine going, we're setting a torrid pace for our return to Newcastle and the completion of this trip. And for another, I like going fast so that little extra oomph is a kick in the pants after a summer of plodding along at five knots.

We're in the mid-nine-knot range now and the sun is shining and the sea is shimmering. We're on a close haul -- we're sailing close to the wind -- so the spray is cascading over the bow at times, exploding in a million diamond-bright droplets in the brilliant sunshine. The diamond stardust hangs in the air for an instant and then falls back toward the boat, where it gathers into rivers of crystal-clear water that course aft along the decks and back into the sea. And then Polar Bear surges into the next wave and the cycle is repeated.

I'm below in an empty saloon, heating up the chili that I cooked for yesterday's dinner -- a dinner we all instead decided to eat ashore in Lerwick (as I knew we would). But it was my watch's turn to cook so cook we did and now it'll be ready for this evening. Maybe. Because we're close-hauled, the boat is at a nice, steep 45-degree angle. Yes, the gimbaled stove keeps the big stew pot mostly level, but it didn't stop a lurch a few moments ago from launching the lid of the pot across the galley. I'll get this stuff cooked (though truth be told: it's not my preferred chili; I'm forbidden from giving it any bite like my normal recipe because apparently not everyone likes spicy food); it will be interesting to see how many brave the boat's heel and the rollercoaster ride to sample the fare.

My watch goes on at 6pm and we'll be topside until 9 (well, we'll see if the Finnish sourpuss is up there the whole time; if he gets to steer a lot, he just might). The wind over that period is forecast to ease a bit, and by the end of that stretch we should be nearing the coast of mainland Scotland, which should mean calmer seas. And then we'll head south along the coast in ever-slower winds, winds that are also supposed to move forward and be right on the nose for the final day's run into Newcastle.

But for now, it's a great ride. Strap in, hang on and enjoy!

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07 September 2011

And Still More Positive Vibrations

We've made the turn into Yell Sound and wow! Easily the best sailing of the summer so far. Talk about last-minute redemption.

The wind that had been on our starboard quarter is now solidly on our beam, and here in the lee of the outer shores of the mainland island of Shetland the water has calmed. But the wind is still running in the 20s and Polar Bear is reveling in the conditions, reaching along at nine-plus knots under bright sunshine. With the engine and generator off, the only sound is the wind in the rigging and the water racing along the hull; these are the conditions that make even die-hard powerboaters and landlubbers come to enjoy (if not love) sailing.

Boogie is letting each of the guests have a turn on the helm, trying to make hay -- or sailing time -- while the sun shines, so to speak. Even the Finnish sourpuss seems to be enjoying this run through Yell Sound.

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Rounding the Final Turn: Iceland to Shetland

We're about five miles from the entrance to Yell Sound, the entry point into the Shetland Islands. We still have 30-odd miles to go to Lerwick from there, but by that point we'll have made it to the Shetlands and this leg of the voyage will be complete.

And it's been an interesting leg. Following the diversion to Husavik, it's mostly been a motoring or motorsailing journey (surprise, surprise). But in the last 36 hours or so, we've been sailing, more or less. For the past 18 hours, we've been rockin', actually.

The wind has been from the starboard quarter, meaning we've been running off before the wind on a broad reach. And once the wind shifted to that direction, it started building...and it built into the night until it was in the high 20s and low 30s. It made for a fun, but dark, 9pm-12midnight watch; the 6-10am watch this morning was still fun but with visibility, occasional patches of blue sky, and seas that had had all night to build. Big, rolling swells of deep blue, flecked with white manes, all beneath a powder-blue was a wonderful morning.

Thankfully. Because prior to that, the journey had been a real drag. Teamed up with the Finnish couple, it was a day or so into the trip when I realized: for the second time this summer, we have a Nordic couple in which the female is the stronger member of the pair. And in both cases, it was the male who'd brought the couple to sailing and the Polar Bear adventure in particular.

In this case, the fine gent took the fabled Finnish stoicism to an extreme: he pouted and sulked through every watch, spending the majority of every watch below in the cabin, and never lifted a finger to help with any of the assigned team chores. His wife, on the other hand, was topside for pretty much the entirety of every watch, no matter how cold and damp, and was tirelessly helpful when it came out turn to clean up the galley.

I don't blame the guy, really. He, and all the other guests on this trip, signed up for a sailing trip from Greenland to Reykjavik and on to the western isles of Scotland via the remote outcrop of rock known as St. Kilda. What they got, instead, was a delivery trip. Instead of savoring the journey and exploring new places, these guests got stuck on a trip where the be all and end all was to get Polar Bear back to Newcastle by Sept. 10. No time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and no time to dawdle en route. It's a go-go-go task, which mandated the excessive use of the engine and a reliance on the autopilot on pitch-dark nights. Bottom line: these guests got screwed. And they know it.

But they didn't get screwed by Boogie, Marlies or me, or even the weather. In the case of the weather, it is what it is, to spout that idiotic maxim of today; they knew bad weather was a likelihood on a trip in these waters at this time of year and they were OK with it. And Boogie, Marlies and I are only the crew; we didn't determine the course of this trip.

No, the fault lies solely with the aforementioned Alfred, owner of Polar Bear and the only one involved on the supply side of this service-oriented business with no regard for the customers. But I've been over his idiocy before so let's leave it at that.

However, for this silly Finn to pout like a 12-year-old is pretty asinine. We're out here in the middle of the sea, nothing's going to change the circumstances until we reach port. You might as well enjoy the trip as best you can -- and then beat the shit outta the owner once you're on land. OK, maybe there's no need to get violent but you get the idea: take it up with Alfred. In the meantime, get with the Monty Python plan and always look on the bright side...

And there was a lot of bright side, particularly in the last couple of days. The sailing was been a zippy, rollercoaster ride to the southeast and we've seen a bunch of wildlife en route. For the first time -- the FIRST! -- this entire summer, we encountered a pod of orcas. Woohoo! I dig orcas, having watched them back in Alaska quite a bit. Before I started preparing for this summer, I had always thought they were a Pacific-only species. So when I learned they were common along our route from the Shetlands on, I was stoked. And then...nothing. Not a one until today, so that was some small bit of last-minute redemption.

We also had bioluminescence on last night's sail. Swirling in the waves along the hull and in the wake behind Polar Bear, the little glowing blobs mirrored the brief starry skies we enjoyed early on, and then continued long after the clouds had obscured the skies. Always one of my favorite parts of sailing, bioluminescence is one of those magical special effects of nature that still make me feel like a little kid every time I see it.

Also notable on this leg were the gannets, pelagic birds we've seen since the start of the summer but not so often up in Greenland and Iceland. Ever since we neared the Faroes, however, their number and size have increased. In particular, I've seen a bunch of juvenile gannets that have been just enormous: wingspans that, on first glance, made me think of an albatross (which, it must be noted, I've never seen in the wild). If those are young of this year and they get that big in just a few months...yikes. They've been THAT big as they swoop and soar in circles on the wild winds, never alighting on the water but instead disappearing downwind, only to return (the same bird?) a little later on. Majestic. Like frigate birds of the north.

And then this morning we were engulfed by hundreds of fulmars, all gliding on the winds around Polar Bear and dotting the waters around her as she plowed through the swell. It was reminiscent of that evening we rounded the southern cape of Jan Mayen, with countless fulmars in every field of view. It called to mind Alfred Hitchcock, to be honest, but these birds seemed disinterested, at best.

Sure, the monotonous motoring and the damp, foggy skies were a drag, no doubt about it. But that's what you sign up for on northern waters. Deal with it. That this Finnish bloke couldn't see past his own nose was a bit of a downer. I was letting him drag me into his funk but the conditions of the past 24-plus hours snapped me out of the fog and back into the sunlight of a fun passage at sea.

So now it's on to Lerwick, where we'll spend the evening at the dock and then head out in the morning, bound for the final two-day run south to Newcastle.

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06 September 2011

Just to Be Clear

So, I've been pretty hard hereabouts on Boy Wonder this summer. And not without cause. But I want to clear up a couple of things.

First off, he's a really nice guy. And his persistent optimism is pretty amazing (to the point of making you wanna smack him now and then). He really does care about the northern part of the planet and he clearly loves exploring the area as much as possible. He seems to enjoy sailing though as I've pointed out before, it's more the means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. But he cares about Polar Bear, the boat and the business.

What drives me nuts about Boy Wonder is how oblivious he is to reality. That may be an outgrowth of his infinite optimism but he's become the living embodiment of the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

He's been fooled so many times by his father that it's become ludicrous. At various times in Greenland, he was pontificating to the guests about what HE was going to do with Polar Bear in the off-season and what HE was going to do with the business and what HE was going to do next season. I kept wanting to scream at him, "Yo! Meathead! You don't own the business, your father does. And your father has declared to all involved that he's going to sell the boat come autumn. On top of that, why would anyone believe you when the stated plans for this season have already been scrapped?"

Never mind that he likely won't sell the business -- it's already 80 percent sold-out for 2012 -- but the fact of the matter is that Daddy Warbucks (or Alfred, as I called him earlier) calls the shots. He's the one who cut short this season; he's the one who lied about the plans for the year and if he doesn't sell the boat he'll be lying again to Boogie and Marlies about the long-term plans.

So basically, Boy Wonder, while a really good kid, is just plain clueless. And the only way he's going to get a clue is by telling his father to piss off. Of course, that would involve standing on his own two feet which it's unclear he's ever done before -- he's's about time.

According to information gleaned from various channels, apparently Boy Wonder is going to do just that: grow a pair and call Daddy's bluff. If that happens, Alfred will have to decide whether he wants to keep the boat/business and hire someone who'll run it, because he won't have Boy Wonder to do his bidding and it's hard to believe that anyone would sign on for such incompentent meddling as we've seen this summer. I'll be a million miles away from Polar Bear by then but I must confess: I'm really curious to learn how it turns out.

05 September 2011

Holding Patterns

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

We came on watch at 2pm, all rarin' to go for a four-hour stint of actual, by God sailing -- in the sunshine, no less. A mere hour and a quarter later, and the wind had dropped and moved right to our nose; attempts to pinch up still resulted in Polar Bear moving at an almost right angle to her desired course. Sigh. Away went the headsails, up went the engine and now we're motorsailing yet again.

Truth be told, it'll be interesting to see how this forecast nastiness a couple of days away actually shakes out. It may well be that we could have persisted on our off-course way and in a couple of days' time had the forecasted tailwinds push us right where we wanted to go. But again, in a commercial venture, we have to play the odds.

So now, sitting in the sunny cockpit as the autopilot steers us along, is the perfect time to tackle a post I've been meaning to do for some time for my own sake. If you're not into the navel-gazing stuff that appears here from time to time, this would be a good spot for you to head back to Facebook or wherever else on the Web you spend your time.

As I've been spending a good portion of this year so far, now almost three-quarters over, pondering over where I've been and where I'm going, it has occurred to me that I've been pretty much in a holding pattern ever since I moved to San Diego in January 2007.

At that time, I left Alaska, a place I loved and still love, for a couple of reasons. One, I'd been recruited by an old boss for a job. It was a job that excited me: back in the dot-com world with an opportunity to help shape the next wave of online media (or so I thought). And given the way my job in Alaska was going it seemed the perfect time to make a leap: the company that owned the magazine I worked for continued to make ill-advised (read: really stupid) moves on the business side of things that had me worried for the very future of the long-lived publication. In the time since I left, the concerns I had have been borne out: the magazine survives, but barely, and the last vestige of the staff that I worked with quit just last week.

The other reason I moved south in 2007 was because I was involved with a woman who lived in the Bay Area. No, San Diego is not in the Bay Area but it was just a short Southwest Airlines flight away rather than two long, redeye flights away, as was Anchorage. And with the job in San Diego being in the dot-com world, it seemed a better opportunity to get me to the Bay Area for good sooner.

Sadly, the relationship went belly-up not long after my move south and the job, after three years, went with it.

But it occurs to me now that I never fully embraced San Diego -- the job or the (still long-distance) relationship. I was, as I say, in a holding pattern, waiting for something else to happen rather than living in the moment.

For instance, I had a notion that I could do the job in San Diego for a year or so and then make the move to a telecommuting role, preferably from the Bay Area but maybe even from back home in Alaska. Yes, I got into the local scene: I made a couple of great friends, I surfed a lot and I took up (and enjoyed) endurance sports. But looking back, I realize that San Diego remained a way station.

I never sold my home in Anchorage. I never bought the sailboat I was going to live on in San Diego Bay. I never bought the small home in one of the beach communities of north San Diego County as I'd have liked to (not that I could afford it, but you get the idea). The bottom line is: I lived in San Diego but I never really LIVED there.

I was on hold for something else. What, I have no idea. Well, that's not true; I have some idea: I mentioned a couple of them earlier in this post.

Anyway, I left the San Diego job with no real idea of where to go or what to do next. I didn't even race back to Alaska as you might have expected, simply because there wasn't any work for me there.

But return to Alaska I did (after doing some fun things such as sailing from the Caribbean to New England and getting my scuba certification), where I put my trashed-by-renters home back into shape. However, again with the benefit of hindsight I realize that I didn't really hustle while doing the job. I took my time, played a bunch (fishing!), interviewed for jobs (in AK and out) and again, bided my time as I circled in a holding pattern.

A return in the fall to California was ostensibly to make the job search easier but the economy's woes kept that a pipe dream. And still I circled...

I moved all my stuff back to Alaska right after the new year. I was on the inside track for a job in Anchorage and my house was now in great shape. And in the spring, I went from a holding pattern to an expedited approach to land (to force the metaphor more than a bit).

On the very same day that I got the written offer for the job in Anchorage I also got a good offer on the house. And while I loved my house and neighborhood, and Anchorage and Alaska, the job wasn't a perfect fit. I also had an offer to join my Dutch friends on a sailboat going to Norway, Iceland and Greenland for the summer, and then across the Atlantic to the Caribbean in the fall, and the image of being at my first day of work knowing that the sailboat was somewhere out there seeing God knows what was simply too strong. I went back into the holding pattern: I turned down the job and took the offer on the house.

The holding pattern continues to this day as I sit here and ponder next steps, steps that will -- no matter where they lead -- have to be taken in the next week or so. Continue the vagabond/adventure life over here in Europe? Continue the vagabond/adventure life aboard a sailboat of my own? Continue the vagabond/adventure life back in the States?

Or do I finally stop circling and come in for a landing somewhere? If so, where? Places I know and have tentative bases such as Alaska, California or New England? Or wherever there's a career opportunity that interests and challenges me?

The sale of my home has left me debt-free and with the ability to continue being a vagabond. But I have to confess to an urge gnawing at my insides to get back in the game. There's also the trepidation that by circling as I have for now a year and a half, no one will let me back in the game -- and then what? And lastly, I have to confess to a powerful urge to stay out of the fray completely and live the creative life I've long sought but, to be honest, been too chickenshit to pursue. I've returned to the page -- putting words on it rather than just reading them -- this summer and I have to say that it's been like a homecoming, a return of the prodigal son.

Do I have any answers yet? No. But I've been whittling down the list and there is progress being made. When we hit shore in a few days, I'll talk to some friends back Stateside who have opportunities they want to discuss, and I'll go from there. And in the meantime, I keep on creating as best I can...and putting my thoughts down on this (electronic) page as part of the whittling process.

Division of Labor

Happy Labor Day to everyone back in the States. Hope you're enjoying the long weekend.

Here on the Norwegian Sea, we're midway between Iceland and the Faroe Islands...and we're sailing! And it's sunny! We started sailing right at the end of my 3-6am watch when Boogie came on and shifted course 10 degrees to accommodate the wind, an act that pointed up one of the challenges to this summer.

When people have asked what I do on Polar Bear, I say (only half-jokingly) that I clean the heads (the toilets). I'm only half-joking when I say that because in truth, we all clean the heads, just as we all clean the rest of the boat, we all cook, we all sail -- we take turns doing the various jobs required on a boat.

What we don't share in is decision-making -- which I understand since this is a commercial venture and it's Boogie's ass (and captain's license and career) in a sling if anything goes wrong. But this morning was the perfect opportunity for me to demonstrate a little initiative and the fact is: I haven't felt empowered to make anything beyond trivial decisions this summer, and that's not how I'm going to learn what I need to know.

An hour into my watch, around 4am, we were still plowing southeast into the wind, main and staysail up and engine running, when the fog finally lifted for the first time in days (though it seemed more like years). We'd been running a bit south of the rhumb line for a day or more, into a southerly breeze, so falling off the wind a touch (more toward the east) would have easily enabled us to sail at the same time it brought us back to our target course.

It's a move I'd hoped to make for many hours, but given the fog and whatever reasons Boogie undoubtedly had (likely based on the weather forecast farther down our track) I'd never even considered asking. When the fog cleared, though, I was really clamoring to make the course change (if for no other reason that to appease the Finns aboard who've been pretty ticked about how little sailing we've been doing on their vacation). But again: the lack of empowerment was, well, overpowering, so I kept on keepin' on, only to have the change made as soon as my watch ended.

The peace that settled over the boat as the engine was shut down was in direct inverse proportion to the frustration I felt at not being able to turn off the damned motor.

And it pointed up the fact that for me to learn what I need to learn at this point, I need to get out on a boat of my own and make my own decisions. If by falling off the wind I slow the boat's velocity-made-good to the point where I'm late getting in, well, so be it -- but of course, that's not an option on a commercial venture, except at the discretion of the skipper and his call on things such as the weather (which, it appears, will prevent us from getting to Newcastle on time, but that's another story).

We had a similar situation a couple of mornings ago as we made our way into Husavik: Polar Bear was close-hauled on a port tack with a broad bay ahead and Husavik directly off the port beam. I woke Boogie to ask him to make the decision: turn on the engine and head straight into the wind for Husavik or continue across the bay and tack back toward port later, extending the sailing but delaying our arrival at the marina. He opted for the engine; if it had been me on my own boat, I'd have continued to sail and opted for the later arrival. Again, a decision I didn't feel empowered to make.

I've learned a lot on this summer's voyage. Most of what I've learned has been about how to operate a boat -- by "operate a boat" I mean: the systems and the people-, time- and project-management in the daily routine of life on board -- and has come through osmosis as I've watched Boogie and Marlies operate Polar Bear. Navigation and handling the boat, however, have remained unattained goals, goals that were to make up for the money I was giving up by taking this summer gig. I knew I wasn't going to get rich on Polar Bear but I was hoping to get more tutelage and hands-on experience in many of the requisite seamanship skills. (To be sure: I have experience in all those areas, I was just hoping for more, and in more diverse situations, than I currently have.)

Perhaps I should have been more assertive, insisting that Boogie teach me more (as he's been doing on this cruise with one guest who's working on his captain's license), but I've always felt that my first obligation was supporting Boogie and Marlies' efforts to run Polar Bear for the benefit of the guests. As a result of that prioritization, for example, I missed a few nice photo opportunities. But more importantly, I haven't gained experience in certain key areas, areas I'll have to develop on my own back home at some point. And that shortcoming, in addition to the shortened season courtesy of Polar Bear's owner, has been a real damper on an otherwise spectacular summer.

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02 September 2011

Dateline: Husavik

So while my earlier remark was true -- I won't have a lot of time to explore Husavik, Iceland, on this visit -- I have spent a bit of time wandering. And since I know you're dying to ask, here are some impressions of this seaside burg.

* The whale museum is excellent. This former (and still, to a certain extent) whaling community has been transformed into a whale-watching community. The museum that commemorates the former and celebrates the latter is an interesting, educational, fun resource that will teach you all you need to know about whales and their relation with humans. Worth the price of admission.
* The culture house is incomplete to me. There was no one at the admission desk when I arrived, and no one showed up when I pressed the "press here for service" button. I wandered into the maritime-history section, which was open, and found it filled with history and information and educational resources. The exhibition on daily life in this region was, sadly, locked, and through the windows it sure looked like an area I wanted to explore. Color me disappointed.
* Husavik is still a fishing community. Cleaned up and made touristy, the town retains the very strong feel of a still-working fishing town. The smell of fish pervades the entire community, not just the dock where Polar Bear is secured. And fork lifts wander the town hauling huge crates of ice in one direction and fish in the other. Husavik may be transitioning to a tourism-driven economy but fish still drives the town for now.

And last but not least...
* The phallus museum remains unknown. I know this is just what you were looking for: a museum dedicated to male genitalia of the animal kingdom. I am not making this up. The brochures promise umpteen examples of whale penises, and examples of pick-the-term-of-your-choice from another umpteen animals. And before you ask, yes, there are (apparently) plaster casts of a few penises from members of the species homo sapiens who have bequeathed their members to the museum upon their death. No word as to whether this has made these generous donors more popular with the female of the species but you gotta give 'em points for taking (or leaving, as the case may be) one for the team. I walked to the door of the museum, intrigued, and read the brochure on the wall outside, but couldn't summon the willpower to fork over the equivalent of $12 for the entry fee. Sorry, there's only so much I'll do in the name of reporting for this here blog.

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False Start

The good news is: we finally got some sailing in. The bad news is: it was en route to Husavik, a port on the north coast of Iceland, after a severe gale was forecast for the northeast corner of the island. So we're sitting here in port for about 12 hours or so, waiting on the force 8 to 10 weather to blow past.

We'd seen this storminess -- the remnants of Hurricane Irene, I believe -- on the forecasts for some time, but earlier prognostications had it well beyond the northeast corner by the time we got there. My watch last night -- I'm back on with the Finnish couple -- saw the wind start to come up in the final 45 minutes, just before 9pm. We had the mainsail (with two reefs) and the staysail out and though we were still motoring, we'd pulled the revs back more and more as the wind built. When we came back on 3am, the engine was off and Boogie had already turned Polar Bear around. We were reaching in anywhere from 5 to 25 knots of wind; the wind was up and down in crazily wide swings as we made our way southwest back to port.

Husavik is Iceland's premiere whale-watching town and is a tourist center that has also retained its commercial-fishing emphasis as well. I've not seen much -- Polar Bear was here in July, when I was back in the U.S. -- and I likely won't get much chance, but the view from the sea is quite lovely: rolling, green hills to the east while steep, alpine peaks line the western shore of the bay. Houses line the bluffs that form the north side of the harbor and and reach just a tiny bit into the hills behind. It's cute, to be honest, with the commercial fishing on the south edge of the port giving it a gritty edge. Put Husavik on the list for later exploration.

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01 September 2011


Quarter past eight in the morning here in Akureyri, and we'll be throwing off the lines in about an hour or so, heading for the Shetland Islands. With that in mind, gonna fire one off the cuff here...

Appropriately enough for Sept. 1, the climb up the hill to the pool complex this morning was filled with signs of the imminent seasonal change as flocks and flocks of geese poured across the sky. All V'ed up and honking merrily along, the flocks continued in a steady stream overhead while I took a final swim/hot tub (the slide was closed...dammit!).

Yesterday, the local youth nordic ski team was doing dryland training on the long stairway leading up the hill to the church overlooking town. And the woman in the tourist office at the harbor said that her shop would be closing after the visit of the final cruise ship of the season on Friday.

And now, sitting in the town square just off the harbor, the high overcast obscures the sun in a way that portends snow. It won't, of course (not today anyway; after all, I'm sitting outside in the town square and am quite comfortable.

But like the geese this morning, Polar Bear and its crew will be headed south very shortly, the short northern summer having come to a close...the very definition of bittersweet.

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