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One Woman's Opinion

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Baltic Sea Passage, Part 1

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— It was a sea journey easy enough to book six months ahead of departure. Why not go off in the heat of August on a cruise to the North and Baltic seas for a tour of the Scandinavian countries, Northern European countries and Russia? I could think of no reason that would keep me home.

But that was then. When it was time to leave for Dulles to catch the airplane for Amsterdam, I left with heavy heart. A dear friend was dying. To leave home at such a time, when one wanted most to lend support, seemed impossible. As it drew clear that there was nothing that I could do to help, I packed my bags and left town. Leaving was one thing, but forgetting was impossible. There was no moment on my travels at sea that I was not thinking of friends at home.

Readers know airline travel and I are not compatible. The night was long and cramped in my tiny seat on KLM to Amsterdam and I never once slept. I remember nothing of arrival as we were directed through customs and immigration, except a friendly man holding a sign “Holland America Line.”  He took our bags and helped us into his van. We were soon in bed at the Renaissance Hotel and fast asleep.

I awoke several hours later to the sound of a workman’s drill that sounded as if it were coming directly from below my room. I had a splitting headache, and as I lay in my bed and considered if I could tolerate such noise, I wondered if I would become the proverbial “Ugly American” and complain about the noise.

Jewel Ray in front of the Nobel Peace Prize Institute in Oslo.
Reichstag Building, Berlin
Bradenburg Gate, Berlin
Tolerance is a lovely thing, I said to myself as the drill got louder and louder. Deciding I had none within me, I leapt out of my bed to call room service and demand a new room. I immediately sank back into my pillows. Sudden jet-lag dizziness prevented any action. Even after several more attempts, I could not stand up. Finally, my husband went out to the streets of Amsterdam to find a hamburger and French fries for me. The golden arches of McDonald’s were only three blocks away and food never tasted so good. That and several immediate aspirin saved the day.

“I shall never again leave home,” I declared solemnly as I finally managed to dress for a walking tour of Amsterdam.

“That’s what you always say,” Chip replied. “But you will feel better and enjoy your vacation. I know you too well, my dear.”

We had soon arranged with the hotel to change rooms to a quieter floor and were on the trolley for Museum Square. The busy city of Amsterdam, population of 800,000 in a nation of just three million, spread out upon 90 islands in a maze of charming canals awaited us. There were bikes everywhere . . . tens of thousands of bikes piled up against each other and chained against the posts or buildings.

The buildings built in Medieval Dutch architecture stood on streets facing a canal. There seemed as many boats moving up and down the waterways as cars and trolleys on the street.      

The city is said to have more canals than Venice. Electric trolleys and bikes carried a great many people to wherever they were going, which suggested the Dutch people have found sensible ways to use energy wisely and control traffic. One had to be forever on the alert, however, so as not to be hit by a bike for they were everywhere on the streets and sidewalks.

We soon arrived to Museum Square, which included both the Rembrandt and Van Gogh museums along with a major diamond headquarters. The waiting lines were long for Van Gogh, so we headed for the Rembrandt Museum, which held a massive collection of this Old Master along with paintings of other famous Dutch painters like Van Dyke, Vermeer and Franz Hal, along with a multitude of beautiful antiques.

I went right to the Rembrandt galleries. He has never cheered me as my beloved French Impressionists always do, but as I stood before his typically dark canvases I felt the balm of his centuries-old brush spread across my aching heart. Why must those we love pass away, I ruminated as I took in the myriad of dark faces peering out at me from the gloomy canvases hung upon the museum walls.

The portraits could not speak in words. But they were comforting in their own eerie way. They appealed to me as they had never done so before. Such was my unhappy mood.  What a terrible thing to do. To leave a friend as he lay dying. It was as if Rembrandt understood my desperate feelings of guilt and that his concept of guilt had touched every one of his paintings. It was as if the Old Master painter knew that in the end we all have to die on our own. Within our own brain. With our own last thoughts. And that I could possibly be absolved of guilt.

The purpose of life is death, I thought, and I could feel the beginnings of coming despair, like some wretched rodent nestled within my brain beginning to stir. Not even thoughts of my daughter and her family and dog at home taking care of my “Lord” and “Lady” dogs at the “Pineapple Palace” in Urbanna could cheer me.

Not even the image of my grandson fishing off the dock or biking to the town park, or my granddaughter enjoying an ice cream cone from Moo’s Diner or swimming at the Urbanna Harbour pool could cheer me. Or memories of black-eyed Susans, geraniums, and asters blooming profusely on the back patio or summer phlox against the back fence. Or my Red Bird off the kitchen porch feeding on birdseed. Or the silvery full moon coming up off the Rappahannock at night in a starry sky.

Nothing could lift my spirits. The next day I embarked on the “ms Prinsendam” for a 14-day journey at sea. I carried both heart and brain within my stiff and aching body as if they were stone.  It was in such state of mind that I began my Baltic Sea passage.  ©2008

posted 09.10.2008

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