Archive for September 2012

North To Alaska

September 26, 2012

We sailed out of Seattle under a cloudless sky, giving us (oh how false) hopes of a sunny voyage northwards. The sea was smooth and expectations were high: off to Alaska for the first time, Shel planning to bag his 50th lifetime state, and me, I wanted to see the truly wild places that I knew lay far north of where I’d been on our continent.

As we lounged on our balconies, drinking rosé in the warm sun, I said, prophetically “We’d better enjoy this bliss while we have it, this may be the last time we see the sun this week.”

So when I awoke the next morning to this fabulous and fleeting sight, I rejoiced in the serendipity that had left the camera within a quick millisecond’s reach of the door, and immortalized the morning sun somewhere off the Queen Charlotte islands. Four minutes later the moment had passed, and the sun has eluded us ever since.

Pulling into Juneau under a bright but cloudy sky, Eric remarked that it looks like a frontier town, which it does, because it is. We bypassed the endless array of tourist shops and headed for the lovely but rapidly receding Mendenhall Glacier.

I should also mention that we bypassed one of the most typical Alaskan means of transportation. Juneau can only be reached by boat or plane, as no roads come here because the city is surrounded by ice fields.

You can get quite close to Mendenhall glacier by bus and on foot, although to walk on the glacier itself you have to arrive by helicopter. Helicopters being on my personal No Fly list, we contented ourselves with the views from the visitors’ center.

Leaving the glacier we headed out to look for humpback whales,

but first we came across this eagle defending his salmon lunch from a variety of other hungry shore birds.

Everyone was out for salmon, and these sea lions seemed especially vicious in their pursuit of the plentiful fish. The sea lions followed the whales, and sea gulls followed the sea lions, often swooping down and ripping bits of salmon right out of their sharp-toothed mouths.

But we were there for the whales, and happily, the whales were there for us. Lots of whales,

really big whales. I wish we’d been in that little boat, although it might have been a bit scary, seeing that huge tail within a simple flick of capsizing the whole shebang.

Although they’re enormous, weighing in at 40-50 tons each, and about 50 feet long, I think the humpbacks have a friendly, engaging look to them.

This one even waved goodbye to us as we headed back to Juneau, on our way to Glacier Bay. Sweet, eh?

Down To The Sea In Ships

September 19, 2012

Being out on the water for five weeks, we naturally saw a lot of boats, ships, and every sort of sea-going vessel. Some, like these little Norwegian beauties, look too fragile to venture far from home. Yet, like their Viking ancestor boats, they were build to withstand the sea.

Here, for the maritime-minded among you, is an assortment of shiply delights.

At the other end of the scale from those little shells are this enormous and frame-filling Icelandic Coast Guard ship

and this bulbous and high-riding Norwegian fishing boat, docked next to our ship, the Maasdam.

While we were in Reykjavik there were French tourists everywhere, who came from this huge cruise ship, the MSC Lirica,

and the harbor was undergoing a big dredging operation to make room for her, and for us.

We saw Norwegian fjord ferries,

Dutch hydrofoil ferries,

and a Newfoundlandic (is that even a word?) harbor ferry.

The canal from Amsterdam to the sea was chock-a-block with every sort of vessel, many of them truly gigantic.

My favorites, though, were the brave little boats, this one Norwegian

this one Greenlandic. There’s something heart-stopping about putting your life in the embrace of a tiny boat and the mighty sea, an experience that we only got vicariously while cruising.

Wishing all mariners fair winds and a following sea, and now, in just a few days, we’re off to take the season’s last cruise to Alaska.

No Newfie Jokes, Please

September 17, 2012

Or else! Returning you to the end of our voyage, we stopped in Saint John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, which is a lovely little spot and historically important, not only for its Viking heritage.

It’s a wonderfully sheltered harbor, colorful and peaceful, and it’s not that long since the first cruise ships started putting in here.

The town put on a heart-warming welcome for us, greeting our ship with a little band playing traditional Newfie music, as well as several people with their Newfoundland and Labrador dogs. I think even the mayor came to welcome the ship, although we didn’t see him. We were very happy to see the Newfie dogs, though, as they are one of the most huggable breeds ever and we were really missing animals by the end of the trip.

St. John’s is famous for its “jellybean” row houses, which make the streets cheerful and gay,

a good thing since they get a lot of very severe winter weather and a little cheer and gaiety must help to keep morale high.

St. John’s is rightfully proud of being the spot where, high atop Signal Hill, Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio transmission in 1901. It was only the letter S, dot dot dot, in the Morse code he must have strained to hear, but those were the dots that changed the world as we know it, and he received a Nobel prize in physics for his invention.

The view down from Signal Hill is pretty spiffy too.

The town also has a lovely monument to peace, and a stunning museum called The Rooms, where we were lucky enough to see the gut-wrenching David Blackwood exhibit. Look him up here, if, like us, you’ve never heard of him before. He captures the history of Newfoundland in an absolutely unforgettable way.

St. John’s also has a district composed almost entirely of Irish pubs, of which I can recommend O’Reilly’s for quite decent food and good live music, but there are also a variety of ethnic foods, including Canadian. Newfoundland only joined Canada in 1949, so if you’re not a native Newfie, you’re still considered to be “from away.” Their cuisine has a couple of unique facets, including Screech, the local rum with a fearsome reputation that I found to be quite drinkable, and seal flipper pie, that even I, a person who ate rotten shark in Iceland, shunned like the devil.

Overall we found Newfoundland to be beautiful, friendly, and welcoming, and even though we’re from away, I hope to go back.

Death And The Living

September 12, 2012

We’ve just winged back and forth to Atlanta for Margaret’s memorial, and all that air time swept my mind with echoes of life and death and life again. Because death, in the end, is really all about the living.

During the memorial days I heard many things about her, learned that many, many people really liked her. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them, but then, the feeling was mutual and I don’t think I can be faulted for disclosing the rocky road we traveled. People knew that we didn’t get along easily or well, and that was that.

But I tried to behave, succeeding best when we were far apart. I remembered flowers for her birthday and Mother’s Day, picked out lovely holiday gifts for her, sent the occasional photo. Dutifully, yes, but also with a small sense of pleasure in playing my role well: wife of the cherished only son. I wasn’t a 100% terrible daughter-in-law, but she still never approved of me.

From her Atlanta friends, though, I learned that she liked to brag about me anyway, about my published writing, and especially about French Letters. Four or five ladies in their late 70s and 80s came up to me after the service to tell me that they were faithful French Letters readers, because Margaret had turned them on to it. I can’t remember your names, ladies, because I met so many people that day, but I hope you’ll still feel welcome here after you read this.

Other people, a lot of them, spoke to me to thank me for saving Shel’s life over and over again. They seemed to credit me with all that the Chinese herb doctor and French touch healer had done for him, as well as what all the doctors of Western medicine have accomplished over the years. I guess they got that from Margaret too. She must have thought I had some anti-cancer magic touch, although even that didn’t make her like me. Clearly, though, she did respect me.

As we sorted through her things, readying her apartment for sale, I discovered that most of the gifts I’d given her over the years weren’t there. Not a single photo of me was to be found, not even our wedding photo. That’s how much she didn’t like me, to the very end, and I have to admit that it hurt to find that out.

It surprised me, to feel hurt, because after all, I won. I’m the one sniffing the Indian summer’s breeze, basking in my sunny garden like a cat, I’m the one who’s still here. I have nothing to complain about, I have the whole rest of my life before me. All those hurt feelings were just feelings, the most ephemeral of things, and they should be gone, as is she who provoked them.

She had a long and busy life, had a ton of friends, two children, four grandchildren, two great grandchildren. She had enough of everything to be generous, although not enough for me. She just didn’t care for me, but then, not everyone does, it’s all a matter of taste. It’s a lesson in paradox: to not see her as others did, to have her not see me as I see myself, to be respected but not liked, thanked but not loved.

I did enjoy sending her flowers, though, poring over the online images of lush bouquets, searching out the colors I knew she preferred. Stories of bad blood between women and their mothers-in-law are legion, there’s nothing more trite, and ours has come to an end. And yet, I’ll miss choosing those flowers. Next Mother’s Day I think I’ll send a radiant bunch to myself, perhaps with a card signed “With love, from Margaret.”