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October 2017

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 Today's mail included an envelope addressed to me from the Republican National Committee, clearly labeled as including a Trump agenda survey. Even though I knew that the questions would be weighted in ways that would make it difficult for me to provide answers that would truly reflect my views, I figured I needed to fill it out and send it back, if only to irritate them. As I expected, I found myself thoroughly annoyed by the questions, but I did answer the questions (and I'm sure my answers will NOT make them happy, since I pretty much opposed everything they proposed). But one of the questions has left me with a feeling of dread. Basically, the question wanted to know if I would support the president issuing an executive order suspending all federal employee unions in order to better implement the president's proposed changes to the bureaucracy. To which my verbal response was "Hell to the NO!" (on paper it was just "No", since the survey was multiple choice: Yes, No, or No Opinion).

The very fact that they are asking Republican supporters if they would support such a measure is more than a little scary. It suggests that the idea is being seriously considered. While I don't always agree with the federal employee unions, I do appreciate that they provide a protective barrier that helps to ensure that the federal workforce is protected from undue political pressure. While the politicians are allowed (within the statutory limits) to set agency policy, they are not allowed to make the career positions subject to political tests or pressure. Without union representation, it will be significantly more difficult to fight such such political pressure.

If, indeed, the administration attempts such a move, the unions would challenge the legality of the order. But court review takes time, and in the meantime, the chilling impact upon the career federal workforce would probably be significant. And in any event, the very notion that they might consider this attack on the federal employees illustrates just how little they care for the safeguards that are built into the system. And that is probably the thought that scares me the most...

 What, exactly, is the history relating to the singing/playing of the national anthem before sporting events? I know it is a very long standing tradition, but I wonder exactly why it was started in the first place. I suppose I could try to do some research into that history, but I'm feeling a bit lazy, and really, it doesn't matter. Whatever the reason it was started, I think the more relevant question is whether it makes sense to continue it. To me, it feels like a symptom of that nationalistic, secular religion that carries the name of patriotism, but isn't a true patriotism. It is a glorification of the national symbols at the expense of the real work of working to ensure that our country always strives towards the best possible realization of its founding principles. It makes it too easy for people to salute the flag and feel like they are good citizens and then turn away and ignore our failings.

To listen to the loudest voices of outrage, you would think that taking a knee during the national anthem is the highest form of disrespect for our nation. But, historically, kneeling has long been a gesture of respect. I wonder how many of these vocal protesters are Catholics who regularly bend a knee every time they go to church? How can they perform that gesture of respect so mindlessly, and then find the very conscious act of taking a knee for the anthem as disrespectful? Perhaps it's because they haven't paused to think about what is happening. Instead, they are simply reacting to an action that breaks the norms, that intentionally calls attention to itself. They simply cannot abide the "other", those who refuse to conform. "Don't rock the boat" seems to be their motto. More evidence that their patriotism is just for show, because if they were truly patriotic, then they would want to understand the protest, to right the injustice, to make our country better for everyone.

In contrast to those protesters who take a knee for the anthem, let's talk about the actions of the fans that truly disrespect the anthem. Before a Baltimore Orioles game at Camden Yards, the fans routinely shout "OH!" when the singer reaches the light "Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave?", which clearly shows their pride in their local team, but certainly is not respectful of the anthem. Similarly, at every home game of the Washington Capitals, some 18,000 fans shout "RED!" when the singer reaches the light about the "rockets red glare" to show their "Rock the Red" pride in the home hockey team. I find both of these shout-outs for the home teams to be *FAR* more disrespectful than a silent protest that simply involves a player taking a knee during the anthem.

Ultimately, I think that those angered by these protests are less concerned with the level of respect being shown for the anthem than they are with the reason for the protest. They are offended because these protests highlight serious injustices in our country, which upsets their comfortable view that the country is fine the way it is. If they acknowledge the legitimacy of the protests, then they would be forced to acknowledge that their comfort is built upon a system that is biased in their favor, and that true justice requires them to confront the realities of racism and bias in our social structures. And since they are not willing and/or able to do so, they must find ways to discredit the protesters. 

It is sad, really, that all of this energy is being expended arguing about the patriotism of the protesters, instead of addressing the very real injustices that they are trying to draw attention to. Addressing the issues of injustice would be true patriotism.

I've been thinking about writing about Colin Kaepernick and the issues raised by his refusal to stand for the national anthem as a gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The public reaction to his actions appear to have ended his career, since he has not been offered a new contract by any NFL team for this season. Around the league, a number of other players have begun to take a knee for the national anthem in support of Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. It has been a couple of decades since I followed the NFL, but the cultural and economic impact of the league make it impossible to remain completely unaware of the controversy.

After the President dove into this issue this weekend, with a series of tweets (including coarse, vulgar language) calling for the owners of the NFL teams to fire any players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, I feel compelled to comment. It may take me a couple of posts to say everything I need to say, and even then I'm afraid that I won't be able to articulate all of what I'm thinking in ways that make sense.

Since the act of taking a knee or refusing to stand for the national anthem is, in my opinion, a form of protected free speech, I think it would be helpful to talk about the First Amendment. I suspect that there aren't many people who wouldn't recognize that the First Amendment protects our right to free speech (among other things), but I'm not sure how many understand that the First Amendment only prevents the government from restricting our practice of free speech. The First Amendment does not prevent employers from restricting the speech of their employees. In other words, you do NOT have an unrestricted right to free speech in the workplace.

So, if the NFL teams want to discipline players for protesting during the National Anthem, they have every right to do so. This is why Kaepernick cannot find a job in the league, and why he hasn't filed a lawsuit claiming that his free speech rights are being infringed. I have an opinion about whether Kaepernick deserves to be sanctioned for his protest, but the league and its teams can choose to do so if they wish.

But, when the President of the United States, who took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, demands that players who express themselves in ways that he dislikes be fired, the equation changes. Now the players' speech rights are being infringed by government fiat, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment. It defies belief that our President either does not seem to understand or does not care that his demands are in direct conflict with the oath of office he took at his inauguration. Regardless of the merits of the protest (which I will address in a separate post, I think), the President simply has NO business injecting himself into the matter.

Beyond that, I find it troubling that so many people are so strongly offended when people don't stand for the national anthem. Many will argue that this is simply patriotism, but I would think that a true patriot would respect the rights of others to express themselves this way. It feels to me as if we've elevated respect for the flag and anthem to the position of a nationalist religion. Any action perceived to disrespect the flag or anthem thus becomes heresy, subject to the harshest sanction. This hardly seems to be a reflection of a healthy society to me. Wouldn't it better for us to embrace a patriotism that cares less for symbolic actions and focuses instead on acknowledging our shortcomings and working together to overcome them?
 Somehow, I was late coming to the realization that a total solar eclipse was going to cross the continent in August. I happened to see an article about it early in July and saw a map showing the path of totality stretching from Oregon across to South Carolina. I happened to mention it to my wife and daughter, pointing out that the total eclipse would pass over Charleston, SC.  My daughter suggested that we should go to Charleston to see it, and my wife agreed that it sounded fun. So we began some last minute planning. Unfortunately, by the time my wife was able to confirm that she didn't have to work, there was absolutely no rooms available in Charleston for the weekend before the eclipse. After some discussion, we decided to go part way down on Sunday, get up early and drive to see the eclipse on Monday morning and then stay in Charleston for a few days afterwards to see the city.

I booked a hotel in southern North Carolina for Sunday night, and one in North Charleston for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. I ordered a set of solar filtered glasses to protect our eyes, and solar filters to protect our cameras, hoping everything would arrive in time. As the date of the eclipse drew closer, I began looking for a place to watch the eclipse. There were a number of viewing parties planned in and around Charleston, and I couldn't decide which of them we would go to. But then I saw a note that suggested the Santee State Park, on the shores of Lake Marion, near I-95, closer to the center of the state. Somehow, it seemed like watching the eclipse from a state park would be more comfortable than from a parking lot (where most of the Charleston viewing parties were scheduled). So that became my plan.

As the days counted down to the eclipse, I began to have second thoughts about whether it was really worth the effort and expense, not to mention hassle of dealing with the crowds, to travel this far just to see an eclipse that would only last about two minutes, at least for the totality. But the money was spent, and the schedules adjusted, so off we went. The drive into North Carolina on Sunday wasn't too bad, although there were a couple of pockets of really slow traffic, probably resulting from the increased traffic volume. Even so, we reached our hotel room by early evening, and I figured we only had to drive about two hours in the morning to get to our destination. And so it was. Traffic on Monday morning was surprisingly light, at least until we reached the exit for the Santee State Park. The traffic trying to get to the park was backed up past the interstate, so we changed our plan. The previous exit, on the other side of the lake, provided access to the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, and there hadn't been any visible traffic back-up there. We grabbed some carryout chicken for lunch and headed back to the refuge.

When we reached the entrance to the wildlife refuge, there was a short back-up as the entering cars waited to get directions and information at the gate, but once past that point, there were no delays getting back to the big field that had been mowed for parking. We followed the stream of cars to the field, parked, and got out to wait for the eclipse. There was a festive atmosphere, with people relaxed and happy. It seemed that everyone was glad to have something to talk about other than politics for a change. People set up canopies and chairs, played cards and volleyball. Eventually, it was time for the eclipse to begin, and we all grabbed our solar filtered glasses and watched as the moon slowly began to inch its way in front of the sun.

It surprised me how little change in the brightness there was until very late in the eclipse. I really didn't notice much change in the brightness until we were beyond 80% occluded, but eventually, it did dim a bit, and the light became redder. I also noticed a (very welcome) drop in the temperature as we neared totality.  And then, in an instant, it was dark as the moon totally covered the sun. We took off our glasses and were stunned by the view. The sun had become a black disk, with a flare of light around it. I snapped a bunch of photos, but also took some time to just enjoy the spectacular view.

Total Eclipse

Then, after just a bit more than two minutes, the light suddenly came back as the moon began to inch out of the way. We had to put our glasses back on again, to watch the gradual progression of the moon as the eclipse drew to an end. I took pictures through the entire sequence, and later put together a composite photo showing the sequence:

Solar eclipse 2017

And when it was all over, and we sat in the car, inching our way out of the wildlife refuge towards the highway, I was glad we had made the effort to be there. It is hard to convey in words just how incredible an experience it was, and I completely understand how a culture without our scientific understanding of the event would attribute any number of superstitious meanings to an eclipse. Even fully prepared for the event, knowing what to expect, I was completely awed by the spectacle. After all of my second guessing, I was thoroughly glad we had come to see it. We're already thinking about where we might see the next one, in April 2024.
 I really meant to post more frequently than I have. I have found myself wanting to reflect on current events and I really want to share some of my travel experiences. But my most productive writing time seems to be during the day, while I'm at work, and I'm reluctant to wade too deeply into current events at the office, as that path leads into a murky swamp of legal and ethical issues. And I have found it difficult to step away from the experience of traveling to write about it in real time, and then my normal life creeps back in when I get home.

And so I write nothing. I've got an idea for dealing with the travel writing issue. I'm thinking about taking a small note pad with me on the next trip, so I can jot down ideas about what I see and do. Nothing detailed, but just reminders about things that struck me along the way. The idea is to use these notes as starting point for posts about the trip when I get home. We'll see if that works at all.

As for current events, I need to force myself to think about writing in the evenings. Perhaps notes might be helpful here too. Often I'll be inspired by a news article or a conversation, and I'll have a bunch of ideas I'll want to write about.  I might need to get in the habit of recording those ideas as notes, which I can flesh out later in the evening, on my own time and with my own computer.  No promises, but I'll give it a try.

It has been nearly two months since my last post. I've been on two trips in that time, both of which I'd like to write about, at least a little.  We have one more trip scheduled before the end of the year, and have started making plans for next year. We've got three trips at least partially planned, and are considering a fourth.  There's a pretty good chance that we'll add a couple more beyond that as well.

When we made the decision to begin travelling more last year, I was worried about whether I'd be able to get enough time off from work to accommodate what we were contemplating. As it turns out, it hasn't been an issue. Because my work schedule is incredibly flexible, I've been able to schedule a lot of my work hours around my travel, working longer days and/or weekends, so that I haven't needed to use as much leave for our trips. In fact, I've done so well at saving my leave that I'm probably going to carry almost 200 hours over into next year. Which means that the pace of our travel is likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.


Anger nation

Jul. 25th, 2017 09:52 am
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While I was on my work trip to Seattle last week, a news article popped up in my social media feed that caught my attention. Actually, the first thing that I saw was a notice from the Alexandria Dash bus service that they were unable to provide service to Eisenhower Avenue because of a police investigation. Only a little later did I see the article about the apparent road rage shooting. This all caught my attention because my daily commute to work includes a ride on a DASH bus along Eisenhower Avenue, and the shooting occurred at the intersection that is basically where I catch my bus in the morning. I was actually quite relieved that I was in Seattle that day, even though the shooting took place almost two hours after I normally would have been at work.

According to another story about the incident, this shooting appears to be the culmination of an encounter that began on the Beltway. According to witnesses, the shooting victim swerved in front of the shooter's vehicle and jumped out of her SUV, screaming at the other driver. The articles I've read suggest that the shooter has a history of anger management issues, although I would venture to speculate that the shooting victim was acting in a less than fully rational manner as well (jumping out of a car in rush hour traffic to confront another driver not being the safest or most efficient tactic). I don't see any indication as to what or who initiated this encounter, but quite clearly it quickly escalated to the point of violence.

I'm finding myself reflecting on this shooting a lot over the last week, perhaps because of its proximity to my commuting route. And (to my surprise), I'm finding myself less focused on the shooting than on the amount of anger displayed by everyone involved. I can't help but think that we, as a nation, could benefit from some sort of massive anger management therapy session. Road rage is just one (highly visible) example of how angry we seem to be these days.  We also see it in so much of what masquerades as political discourse of late, and it certainly felt like anger was a significant factor that drove the election last autumn.

I am not an expert in anger management, and I certainly have had my share of moments when I've blown my top. But I'm coming to realize that such outbursts are unhelpful and frequently are counterproductive. I'm learning that it is often better to take a deep breath and step away before I respond, to give me time and distance to calm down. Often I come to see that I was on the verge of a massive overreaction, and I can sometimes even manage to put myself in the other person's shoes, in an attempt to understand their actions. All of this leaves me feeling less stressed and better able to cope.

I have no idea how we convince others to take these steps, or even if they would work for others. But it seems to me that unless we find someway to reduce the amount of anger coursing through our society, things won't get better anytime soon.

 The very nature of my job means that opportunities for work related travel are extremely limited. I am currently in Seattle on a rare work excursion to visit some of the companies that file applications in the technology I work on (image analysis). These trips are intended to be educational, a chance for us to meet with inventors and attorneys on their turf and learn a bit more about what they do. I'm being paid, but off the production clock, so it should be a relaxing week, sort of a free, paid vacation of sorts. This is only my third such trip during the 27 years I've worked for the Office, and the first that didn't go to Silicon Valley in California.

Yesterday was our travel day, and we flew out on Alaska Airlines on a non-stop flight from Reagan National Airport, which got us here before lunch time. We took advantage of the free afternoon to do some sightseeing, visiting the Space Needle and the Pike Place Market. The weather was incredibly clear, and we got some absolutely breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier throughout the day. Today we start our visits, which will continue through Thursday and we will fly home on Friday.

Downtown Seattle and Mt. Rainier from the Space Needle
 A week ago today, i started noticing a number of condolence messages popping up on my Facebook feed, indicating that someone I used to know had died. This prompted me to do an internet search for news about the accident that was referenced in those posts. What I found was more than a bit of a shock. My old friend, Rod, had been killed in an accident, along with two other employees of the ambulance company he worked for when their car drove under a jackknifed tractor-trailer on the interstate between Syracuse and Watertown, in upstate New York.

I knew Rod from my time at Clarkson University, when I joined the Potsdam Volunteer Rescue Squad. I took my EMT class with his wife, Patsy, during the fall semester of my junior year, right after I joined the squad. The next autumn, I took my Advanced EMT-Intermediate class with Rod. He was one of my mentors in the squad, and I considered both him and his wife to be friends. I have fond memories of time spent hanging out with Rod at the rescue squad during my senior year at Clarkson. I even returned to Potsdam a couple of times during the first couple of years after I graduated to visit.

However, the distance proved to be too great an obstacle in that pre-World Wide Web world, and I mostly lost touch with them. Eventually, we reconnected on Facebook, but he was apparently not one of those people who spent lots of time there, so our Facebook connection was mostly symbolic. For my part, I felt some nostalgia for my college/rescue squad days when I saw his name, but otherwise there was no real connection to his current life. Specifically, I did not know that he had begun working for R.B. Lawrence Ambulance, a private ambulance company that provides inter-facility medical transport services for the North Country region of New York, and certainly did not know that he had become an EMS Supervisor for the company. I have no idea how active he was with the Potsdam Rescue Squad, but during my time there, I know he was a huge part of the organization. Given what I know about him, I know that he was a huge asset to the emergency services in the communities up there.

This week, I have watched Facebook fill up with notes and photos from his funeral.  It is clear that he was widely respected and that his sudden passing was a shock to the community.  These photos of the funeral procession moved me deeply:


The other surprise were the photos that showed that members of the FDNY Pipes and Drum Corps came up from New York City to pay their respects to a fallen brother. And the photos of the funeral procession passing underneath the giant US Flag hanging between the extended towers of two ladder trucks from different fire departments brought tears to my eyes. This was a funeral on a magnitude that is probably unprecedented in these small communities, and I think it shows just how widely spread the reaction to this tragedy was felt.

There was just no way for me to be able to attend the funeral myself, but I am comforted by the images of the massive outpouring of support. Rod dedicated his life to helping his community, and the community went to great effort to acknowledge his work on their behalf. Well done, all. Rest in peace, Rod. You will certainly be missed.
On Monday, our final tour began with an early pick up at our hotel. It would be a long day, driving to Vík and back, and the day's itinerary included two waterfalls, a glacier, and a beach. The first part of the tour retraced the end of our tour the day before, as we backtracked past the power plant and the town of Hveragerði. The first stop for the day was the impressive waterfall, Skógafoss. Visible from the highway, once the bus was parked and we were able to get out, we discovered that we could walk right to the water's edge at the base of the waterfall (as long as you didn't mind getting a bit wet...we decided that the temperature was a bit cool to risk getting too wet). The angle of the sun produced very low rainbows in the waterfall's mist. It was really strange to be looking at the ground to see rainbows!


Just a few miles further down the highway, after crossing a one-lane bridge, our bus turned off onto a side road that wound its way to the parking area for Sólheimajökull. Thirty years ago, this parking area was right at the face of the glacier, and no further effort was required to view the glacier.  However, the glacier has since retreated up the valley and now it requires a fifteen minute walk over some slightly challenging terrain to get a glimpse of the base of the glacier. There is also a lake in front of the glacier that wasn't there just seven years ago. Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier for the much larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, which covers an active volcano. A major eruption here would create significant flooding for this section of the southern coast, and the town of Vìk maintains and active evacuation plan against this eventuality.


After stopping for lunch in Vìk, our bus turned around to begin our return journey.  The first stop after lunch was a visit to the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. Here the coastal erosion of the volcanic rocks had carved shallow caves and arches in the cliffs, leaving a wide expanse of black sand beach.  However, the same forces that created this spectacular vista sometimes makes this a dangerous place to visit. While the surf was light while we were here, we were repeatedly reminded not to turn our backs to the water, as big waves can crash onto the beach with very little warning. Apparently two tourists have died here in the last seven months because they did not heed these warnings.



The final stop on our tour was just a few miles from our first. Seljalandsfoss is also visible from the highway, falling from the same coastal cliff as Skógafoss. However, this waterfall looks very different, with its narrower stream. Seljalandsfoss also has carved a small cave behind it, so that we could walk all the way around behind it. This time, in spite of the cool temperatures, we risked getting a bit damp so that we could enjoy the views from behind the waterfall.


The view from behind Seljalandsfoss

From here it was back to the city and our hotel. Iceland had treated us to some spectacular scenery, but we know that we've barely scratched the surface here. We may just have to return to see more.
 When our ship returned to Copenhagen, the disembarkation process was exceptionally fast and efficient, and we soon were on a (very crowded) transit bus, headed back into the city. At the Nørreport station, we switched from the bus to the Metro for the final leg of our trip to the airport. After a painless check-in, we settled in to await our flight to Iceland.

When we arrived in Iceland, we quickly collected our bags and found the shuttle we'd booked for the ride to our hotel. The international airport in Iceland is in Keflavík, about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavík, but our hotel was the shuttle's first stop when we reached the city, which was convenient.  Hotels in Iceland are expensive, and we had chosen ours because it had a relatively low price with decent reviews.  It turned out to be a really great location, sitting just across the street from the iconic Hallgrimskirkja, often referred to by the locals as the "big church". This landmark made it impossible for us to remain lost in the city for very long.


As we settled into our room, we contacted our tour guide from Copenhagen, who was now visiting her mother here in Iceland. She sent us some restaurant recommendations and we headed out to explore and get some dinner. We quickly discovered that restaurants in Iceland are very expensive. Appetizers are generally about US$15-20 and main courses generally will cost at least US$35. Since it was Saturday night, many places were full, and we weren't really in the mood to wait for a table, so when one of the places Inga Maria recommended had open tables, we didn't think twice. The food may have been expensive, but it was delicious and filling. 

When we returned from our tour the next day, we again contacted Inga Maria, who met us at the hotel and we all went to dinner together.  It was great to see her again, this time in her native country, and we had a fun evening out, with more great food and wonderful conversation. Our final evening was given over to more sightseeing in the city after we returned from the tour we had booked for the day.  We wandered further into the city, window shopping and generally enjoying the sights. The next morning, our shuttle picked us up right on time and took us back to the airport for our flight back home.
 We had decided to spend two full days in Iceland on the way home from our cruise, and ended up booking day-long tours for each day. On Sunday, we were picked up at our hotel just after 8:00 am to begin the Golden Circle tour, which is possibly the best known of the tour options in Iceland.  As we headed east out of Reykjavík, our tour guide began what would prove to be an almost non-stop narrative, describing the history, geography, and geology of Iceland, among other topics. It was a warm (by Icelandic our tour guide kept reminding us), sunny day, and along the way we were able to drink in the stark beauty of this volcanic landscape.

Our first destination was the Þingvellir National Park (the "Þ" seems to be equivalent to "th"). This location is significant for a couple of reasons. Historically, this is the location where the island's original parliament met, when the tribal chieftains gathered here annually in the tenth century to discuss the law and resolve conflicts. This is also a site of significant geological interest, as it is a rift valley, formed by the movement of the North American tectonic plate away from the Eurasian tectonic plate. The opposite sides of this valley are moving away from each other at a rate of about an inch (2.5 cm) per year. This is a starkly visible reminder of the powerful forces that are at work inside the Earth.


From here, we continued to visit one of the most impressive waterfalls I've ever seen.  Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) is a two tiered waterfall that drops into a narrow canyon with steep sides.  From the publicly accessible platforms, it is difficult to see the bottom of the waterfall, but it is dramatic and beautiful, set in the stark, empty Icelandic countryside.  After gawking at the waterfall for a bit, and taking plenty of photos, we headed into the visitor's center for a quick lunch of traditional Icelandic lamb soup. Yum!


On our way to our final scheduled stop of the tour we made a brief, unscheduled stop to visit with a small paddock of Icelandic horses near the road. We grabbed handfuls of grass from the edge of the parking area, and when the horses saw that we had food to offer, they eagerly came over to visit with us.  Icelandic horses are a small breed, with wild manes and spirited dispositions. They are beautiful to watch, and it was only with reluctance that we said farewell and reboarded our bus.

Our final official stop of the tour was at Geysir, an area of geothermal hot springs.  The star attraction here is the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5-6 minutes, with varying magnitude.  We lingered long enough to witness a couple of truly impressive eruptions. The walkways got surprisingly close to the geyser, so we got a really good look at the surface of the water as it prepared to erupt.  It is hard to describe the way the water moves in advance of the eruption, but it was clear that significant amounts of energy were at work.


When we reboarded our bus for our return trip to Reykjavík, our tour guide applauded our promptness at all of our stops so far and indicated that we had time for one more "surprise" stop. This turned out to be one final waterfall, at Faxi. While not as tall or as powerful as Gullfoss, it was quite pretty, set all by itself in the middle of the empty countryside.  After we took some pictures, we boarded the bus one final time. Our tour guide continued his narration as we returned to the city.  Along the way, we took detours through the village of Hveragerði, which has dozens of hot springs scattered throughout the town, and past one of the newest geothermal power plants in the country (90% of the electricity here is generated geothermally, the rest comes from hydroelectric plants).

Faxi waterfall

Along the tour, our guide noted that Iceland has a significant earthquake every 8 years or so and that one of the significant volcanoes erupts every 70-80 years.  Both are now due or overdue. My wife looked at me, clearly thinking about all the emergency response we'd already witnessed on this trip, and started to say "Wouldn't it be funny if..."  I quickly interrupted her with a definitive "NO". It's one thing to see the relatively small responses we'd already seen, but a major event in Iceland would have been something else altogether.

 The final port on our cruise itinerary was Warnemünde, just north of Rostock, Germany. While we could have chosen to tour Rostock or spend the day on the beach, the only excursion we really even considered was the tour to Berlin. We knew that it would be a long day on a bus, and that we wouldn't spend even close to enough time in Berlin to satisfy us, but this was the first opportunity we've had to experience the city, so we decided to get a little taste, even if it means we'll need to come back to explore more thoroughly.

Our drive to Berlin was all on the autobahn through farmland. We did see villages out away from the highway, and the landscape was dotted with dozens of wind turbines for most of the trip. This tour focused on the history of Germany since the Second World War, and our tour guide pointed out how we were driving through what had been East Germany for forty years, the Soviet sector of occupied Germany, and noted that during the Cold War, it would have been difficult for us to have visited this part of Germany.

When we reached Berlin, we stopped briefly at Alexanderplatz to pick up another guide who would show us around the city. Our tour began on the bus, as we drove through the historic city center, down the Unter den Linden past the Cathedral and the Humbolt University and on to the government center with the Reichstag and Chancellery, before we headed into the Tiergarten. Finally, we stopped at the Brandenburg Gate and got off the bus to see more of the city on foot.  From the Brandenburg Gate, we walked through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and stopped briefly at the site of Hitler's bunker, before visiting a remnant of the Berlin Wall. We made a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, which is a reproduction of the original US Army checkpoint at this location, created to satisfy the tourists, which means it is exactly as tacky as you would expect.


Brandenburg Gate

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

We finally made our way to the Berlin Concert House, where we reboarded our bus for the long drive back to Warnemünde and the ship.  As we had expected, this was the merest appetizer of a taste of Berlin, leaving us hungry for more. Berlin struck us as a vibrant city, busily rebuilding itself.  They are recreating many of the historic buildings that didn't survive World War II, and while only traces of the Berlin Wall itself remain, the winding path of the wall through the city is clearly marked with a double row of bricks laid into the pavement and sidewalks. We saw an incredible number of museums and performing arts venues, none of which we had time to visit. Berlin is definitely a place that we will need to visit again.

 The second of our excursions that was canceled was the one we had chosen for Aarhus. When we looked to see what other options we might have, we discovered that there was only one other tour in English, so we decided just to try exploring the city on our own. We hope that there might be city maps available to help us find our way around, and we thought we might use a hop-on-hop-off tour bus service to get an overview of the city. As it happened, we were able to do both within minutes of getting off the ship.

The hop-on-hop-off loop took about 55 minutes and had nine stops. We rode the bus around to the eighth stop, listening to the audio descriptions of the city, but when we got to the eighth stop, for the Aarhus Cathedral, we got off the bus to go inside the church. The church was originally built by the Roman Catholic Church and was dedicated to St. Clement. The church has undergone many changes, but the original altarpiece with its tryptic is still in place.

St. Clement's altar

From the cathedral, we decided to walk back across the center of the city to Den Gamle By, an open air museum of historic buildings collected from around Denmark. Along the way, we walked along Møllestien, a street of colorful homes, many with spectacular rose buses. I had seen photos of this street and was looking forward to seeing it in person. I was not disappointed.


We spent several hours exploring Den Gamle By. The oldest buildings date to the 17th and 18th centuries, and restored to that period, with businesses and craftsmen's shops, as well as residences. These buildings show what life was like in Denmark three and four centuries ago. This section of the Den Gamle By is the largest, and we spent most of our time here.  The next section is made up of buildings from the early 20th century and show Danish life in the 1920s. Finally, we explored a series of apartments that show how people of different circumstances lived in Denmark in the 1970s.

Den Gamle By

After finishing our visit at Den Gamle By, we re-boarded the hop-on-hop-off bus to finish our circuit of the city. We stayed on the bus as it started its next loop, getting off at the stop for Marselisborg Palace, the summer and Christmas home of the Danish royal family. When they are not in residence here, the grounds are open to the public, and we wanted to explore the gardens for a bit before we had to return to the ship. Again, we were struck by the lack of physical barriers or visible security. For all appearances, we could have walked right up to the front door and knocked (not that we tried...I'm pretty sure that would have revealed just how good the security really was).

Marselisborg Palace

After satisfying our curiosity at the palace, we made our way back to the bus stop and caught the bus back to the city center. We got off the bus by the City Hall and walked back to the pier, soaking in the ambience of the city as we went. All too soon we were back aboard the ship and sailing off to our final port.
The final port in Norway was Kristiansand, on the southern coast. This was also our shortest port call, as we didn't arrive at the pier until about 1:00pm, so we were able to enjoy a leisurely morning onboard the ship before our excursion. After our originally booked excursion was cancelled, our choices were a high-speed boat tour in the harbor or the vintage Setesdal railway. Since we were concerned about being too cold out on the water in a high speed boat, we opted for the steam train (probably a good choice, since it also turned out to be a rainy day).

Our bus took us north of the city to one end of the 6km stretch of track used by this historic railway, where we had about a 15 minute wait before our train arrived. When the train finally arrived, it was full of passengers from our ship who apparently had caught it from the other end. While those passengers got off the train and we got ourselves settled, the steam locomotive was moved to the other end of the train for the return trip.

Setesdal vintage railway

Once the locomotive was repositioned, we pulled away from the station, back the way the train had come from. It continued to rain, but we had several of the windows opened so we could have a better view of the countryside. The tracks hugged the side of the valley, with rocks just feet away on one side, and a small river running beside us on the other.

When we reached the station at the other end of the tracks, we reboarded our bus for our return to the ship. Once we reached the pier, we had about an hour before we were scheduled to depart, so my wife and I went for a short walk to see some of the city. Because of the continuing rain and the short amount of time, we really didn't get to see much, but it was nice to stretch our legs a little before going back aboard the ship for the night.

Kristiansand harbor
The second port on our cruise was Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, home of composer Edvard Grieg. When we woke, we were still sailing into the harbor, just passing under a suspension bridge.  While the ship maneuvered into the pier and was secured, we ate a quick breakfast. When we disembarked, we immediately boarded a bus for our day-long excursion to ride the Flåm railway. The bus immediately headed out from the city. Our first stop was at Tvidefossen, a magnificent waterfall located just a few hundred yards from the highway. When we got off the bus, we discovered that we could walk almost up to the very base of the waterfall. Since it was raining, the mist from the waterfall really didn't make much difference as we took our photos.


A bit further along, our driver pulled off the highway onto a secondary road that climbed up the mountainside. After a short climb, he made a turn onto a narrow switchback that descended back to the valley floor. This switchback had a 19% grade (!!!) and made its descent between two tall waterfalls.  It was hard to know where to look, with awesome waterfalls on either side and an incredible view of the valley below us.

Looking down at the valley

After stopping for lunch in Gudvangen, we finished our ride to Flåm, where our train was waiting for us. We found the car reserved for us, and soon the train pulled out for the incredibly scenic ride up the valley to Myrdal. Along the way, we were treated to gorgeous views of the valley, with its farms and numerous waterfalls. We made brief stops at several stations along the way, as this train is a key form of transport for the residence of this valley.  Near the end of our ride, the train made a five minute stop at a special viewing platform for the Kjosfossen, a powerful waterfall that drops down under the tracks.


At Myrdal, we changed trains for a ride down another valley to Vossevangen, where our bus was waiting to take us back to our ship. As we reached Bergen, we took a short drive through the historic center of the city. But when we got to the pier, we were one of the last buses to return, and the ship's crew was waiting for us, so there was no time to explore.

The views on this excursion were incredible, but it was a long day, and we were disappointed that we didn't get to see much of Bergen itself. Because our original excursion for the next day was canceled, we were looking at two consecutive days of train rides. In hindsight, we find ourselves wondering if we should have considered a tour of the city itself, especially because of the change of plans for the next day. I guess we'll just have to come back someday and spend some time exploring the city.

 After our day at sea, our first destination was the Geiranger fjord, one of the longest fjords in Norway. We entered the fjord sometime during the night, and by the time we woke, we were tied to the pier in the tiny village of Hellesylt (2013 population - 253). This was as far north as I had ever been (62° North latitude), and it was a chilly morning compared to this time of year at home. The ship was only staying here for about an hour to disembark passengers who had booked tours from here and would be leaving at 9:00 am to sail the rest of the way to the only slightly larger village of Geiranger at the end of the fjord.


After a short stop to take photos from the bridge in front of the waterfall, our bus started up into the mountains on a one lane road, passing farms on both sides as the mountains loomed above us.  Tiny streams of water fell from the mountaintops all along the way, and everything was lushly green. When the pavement ended, our bus stopped and we continued on foot, beginning a 10km (6 mile) hike over the mountain pass to the village of Flo, on the shores of the glacial lake Oppstrynsvatnet. The climb up to the pass was gradual and did not require any strenuous effort, so we would enjoy to gorgeous scenery around us.  We followed the shores of three smaller lakes and the streams that connected them, gawking at all of the waterfalls, both small and large, that dropped from the mountain peaks around us. The air was crisp and clean, and the sun even came out for portions of the walk, warming us as we made our way. Eventually, on the shores of the third lake, we came to a collection of summer homes, accessible from the valley below by a steep gravel track that certainly required four wheel drive to ascend. The descent down this track was probably the hardest part of our hike, as it was much steeper than our climb, and the loose gravel kept slipping beneath our feet.

Summer homes above Flo

When we reached Flo, our bus was waiting for us, having driven back to Hellesylt and taken a longer route around the mountains to get there. After boarding the bus, we drove around the end of Oppstrynsvatnet to the opposite shore, where we were scheduled to stop for lunch at the Heille Hotel. The dining room had a lovely view of the lake for us to enjoy while we ate a lunch of homemade mushroom soup, fresh salmon with potatoes and vegetables, and a dessert of ice cream and berries, all washed down with a non-alcoholic Norwegian beer. After lunch, we had just a few minutes to get some photos of the lake and mountains before continuing our journey.

The view from our lunch stop

We quickly left the valley behind, climbing high into the mountains, passing through two long tunnels. As we exited the second tunnel, it was like we had driven back into winter.  The mountains were entirely snow covered, and the lakes we drove alongside were still frozen over. There was one tall, wide slope with ski tracks on it, even though there was no lift or formal ski area.  Looking closely, we could just make out half a dozen skiers working their way down the slope after having climbed up earlier in the morning. 

Our final stop before arriving in Geiranger was the scenic viewpoint at the top of Dalsnibba, the tall mountain peak at the end of the valley that holds the Geiranger fjord. Access to this mountain top is via a private toll road built and maintained by the residents of Geiranger. This steep switchback road was lined with tall snowbanks, often taller than our bus. From the top of the mountain, we were treated to panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains and the fjord, far below, with our ship (and others) anchored, waiting for our return.

Cruise ships wait at Geiranger

From here, we began our descent, squeezing our way past the ascending traffic on the narrow road. Eventually we arrived in Geiranger, where we browsed the gift shops briefly before catching the tender boat back to our ship, arriving back aboard shortly before our scheduled dinner time.  As we ate dinner, we watched the mountains slide past on either side of the ship as we sailed back down the fjord towards the Norwegian Sea.  After dinner, we spent a little time out on deck, enjoying the scenery, at least until it got too chilly.  Eventually, we went back inside to enjoy the evening's show, and as we prepared for bed that night, we got to watch as we exited the fjord and turned south for Bergen, our destination for the next day.
 This was our Costa cruise experience, and frankly we found it a bit disappointing. While I wouldn't exactly say that we are experts at the cruise ship thing (this was my sixth cruise and my wife's eighth), we have enough prior experience to have developed certain expectations. And in a couple a significant ways, Costa fell a bit short of what we have come to expect.

Our biggest disappointment was with the food. We ate dinner in our main dining room each night, with wonderful tablemates. While the food was okay, that's really all it was.  I don't expect great food on the buffet, but I have come to expect that the dinner offerings in the sit down restaurants to be somewhat more memorable. That really wasn't the case here.  Not that it was bad, but it seemed entirely pedestrian. In addition, the breakfast service in the restaurant really wasn't significantly better than the buffet, and we heard that the lunch service left much to be desired as well (we never ate lunch in the restaurant).

Beyond the underwhelming quality of the food, we found the availability of food to be lacking as well. To the best of my recollection, every other ship I've been on has had some form of food available pretty much all day, at least until midnight. That wasn't really the case on the Favalosa, where the the buffet closed at 9:00 pm. Our dinner was during the early seating (which was fine, since we normally eat early), but after the evening show the first night, I was in the mood for a light snack before bedtime, and wa disappointed to find the buffet already closed. There were places on the ship where food was available later than 9:00 pm, but they all required payment of additional fees.

They also didn't have many options beside the buffet.  Most of the other ships I've been on have a deli/sandwich station and a pizza station where you can get made to order sandwiches or fresh pizza. The Favolosa had these as well, but they were charging an extra fee. I still can't really wrap my mind around having to pay extra for pizza on an Italian owned ship!

We weren't alone in feeling that the food quality and availability was lacking. Our tablemates at dinner also expressed similar sentiments, as did a few others we met on the cruise. Admittedly, our sample size is small and biased towards English speakers, but it reassures me that we weren't the only ones to note these issues.

Finally, we found that language was a little bit of an issue for us.  We knew that this was an Italian ship, and that we, as Americans, were likely to be a minority on the ship. That really didn't bother us. It was actually kind of fun to listen to all the languages around us, and to watch the ships staff interact in multiple languages.  However, it was disappointing to have two of our shore excursions cancelled because not enough people signed up for them in English.  Since most of our other tours were bilingual, we assume that this meant that the tour didn't have enough English requests for an English only tour, and that there wasn't a bilingual guide available for that particular itinerary. We did book a different tour for Kristiansand, but our choice was extremely limited, so when our tour for Aarhus was canceled and there was only one other choice available, we decided just to explore the city on our own. That worked out fine, but still, it was disappointing to spend the time researching and booking excursions only to have them cancelled once we were aboard the ship.

Based on this experience, I think we will be reluctant to book a Costa cruise again, unless the itinerary is one we really want to do and it isn't available from another company. I don't regret this cruise, since it took us to some spectacular places and we saw amazing things, but the ship itself left us feeling a bit disappointed, and we'll be looking for a better overall experience on our next cruise.
 On the first full day of our cruise, which was our only day at sea as we sailed north along the Norwegian coast, we witnessed our third major emergency operation of the trip.  Shortly before midday, we returned to our stateroom to pick up some things and noticed the sound of a helicopter flying nearby. Almost as soon as that sound registered, there was an announcement on the public address system requesting the stretcher team to report to the ship's hospital. I stepped out onto our balcony and discovered that the Norwegian rescue helicopter was directly above our cabin!

I quickly grabbed my camera, and began to take photos as we watched a member of the helicopter crew prepare to repel down to the ship. Once he was on deck, they lowered a basket down, and the helicopter moved out next the ship while they prepared the patient for the transfer.  Over the next 15-20 minutes the helicopter appeared to remain perfectly stationary relative to the ship. But since the ship was still moving, this meant that the helicopter was actually station-keeping, moving at exactly the same speed as the ship. That pilot did a truly impressive job of flying the helicopter.

Eventually, the helicopter moved back over the ship and the patient and crew member were hoisted aboard.  When the aircraft moved alongside again, the crew was sliding the side door closed and the helicopter accelerated ahead of the ship before crossing in front of us towards the Norwegian shore. It was a very professional and skilled operation. I have no idea what the condition of the patient might have been, but we weren't scheduled to arrive at a port with a hospital until the third day of the cruise, so I can imagine a number of situations that might have been beyond the ability of the ship's hospital to manage until then.

Afterwards, we talked to others on the ship and discovered that all the outdoor decks of the ship had been closed during the operation, to prevent people from being blown overboard by the rotor wash. That meant that only those with balconies on our side of the ship had a decent chance of witnessing the operation, although everyone on the ship knew it was happening. It was the first time I've been on a cruise when someone needed to be evacuated, and I found the operation fascinating to watch. However, I feel bad for the person whose vacation was so dramatically interrupted, and I hope that they are recovering well.


Jun. 15th, 2017 08:36 am
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I was simply charmed by Copenhagen (København to the locals). This is a capital signal that has a laid-back feel that I haven't found to be the case in other cities. It is an old city, with all the grace that often accompanies deeply historical places, but at the same time, this is also a thoroughly modern city, with a convenient, clean, and efficient transportation network that functions well in conjunction with the widespread use of bicycles.  Even as a newly arrived visitor, I found it simple to take advantage of the public transportation options: We used the train to get from the airport to our hotel, the train and bus to get from the hotel to the cruise port, and the bus and metro to get from the cruise port beck to the airport. The prices were reasonable, the connections easy to figure out, and the schedule reliable. We did all of this for less than the cost of a single taxi ride. Coming from the Washington, DC area, where our public transit system has been in crisis mode for the last few years and seems in danger of becoming utterly useless, it was refreshing to take advantage of such a well planned and maintained system.

As I was writing my initial entry about our arrival in Copenhagen, my wife was taking a nap.  Shortly after I posted that entry, she woke up and we ventured back out into the city for a couple more hours.  We walked along the water towards the old fort at the north end of the old part of the city. We weren't really looking for any specific landmarks, but simply enjoying the evening in a new city. Eventually, we discovered the Little Mermaid statue, one of the iconic tourist spots in this hometown of Hans Christian Anderson. Because it was late evening on a weekday, and because there was a concert elsewhere in the city as part of an ongoing music festival, the normal crowds that make this a difficult spot to visit were not in evidence, and we could linger to get photos from different angles, and appreciate the setting, on the edge of the harbor.

The Little Mermaid

We then began our walk back towards our hotel, exiting the castle area through the Churchillparken. We admired the handsome St. Alban's Anglican church here, and found a bust of Winston Churchill.  This is also the future site of a museum dedicated to the Danish resistance during WWII. This museum is being built underground (fittingly), and, from the descriptions on the signs we saw, sounds like something I will want to return someday to visit.

During our all day tour of the city on our second day here, we got a terrific overview of the city, as well as an introduction to the history.  We visited the Christianborg Palace, once home to the royal family but now serving to house Parliament, as well as Amalienborg Palace, the current home of the Danish Queen, as well as the Crown Prince and Princess. At each of these locations, I was struck by the lack of a security perimeter...In each case, the streets were open to the public right up to the buildings, and there was very little visible security presence. Granted, the ceremonial guards at Amalienborg were carrying very modern and functional rifles, and I have no doubt that each location is thoroughly covered by video surveillance, but the contrast to the bunker-style security we have put into place in Washington, DC, was stark.

Over our two days here, we saw a great deal, walking miles through the maze of streets that make up the old part of the city. Clearly, we didn't see everything that there was to see, but it was a satisfying visit, leaving me very impressed with the city and its people. I certainly hope that I'll be able to return someday so that I can spend some time exploring the many museums that fill the city.
 I'm home from our trip to Europe, and additional posts are forthcoming about what we saw and did.  But first, I want to update my visited countries map, since this trip added four new countries (Denmark, Norway, Germany, Iceland) to it.