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One Woman's Opinion

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Baltic Sea Passage, Part 2

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— The “ms Prinsendam,” smallest and oldest ship in the Holland America fleet of 14, sports fine woodwork, traditional lines and a maritime navy hull. She was the kind of ship Father would have liked; not the massive, new-fangled, white plastic floating motels that pass as cruise ships today. I felt right at home.

That next day we left Amsterdam and steamed through the North Sea to the entrance lock of the Kiel Canal, a 61-mile shortcut passageway through Germany that connected to the Baltic Sea. Built by the Germans before the turn of the 20th century, the canal enabled them to quickly move their ships to the North Sea. It was heavily bombed during World War II, but the Germans managed to keep it open, nonetheless.

It was fun to enter the narrow lock that appeared to swallow our ship. We felt like a whale in a bathtub. It was several hours waiting for the water to rise to the level of the canal, which is much higher than sea level. It was hard to estimate but it seemed that our ship was raised 20 or 30 feet.

For the next 4 hours we steamed through a rural Germany of farmland, small ferry boat crossroads, and tiny villages. Vacationing families on bikes were out on the pathways cycling along both sides of the canal. They waved to us unfurling German flags. Every time our captain spotted someone waving Holland’s flag, he rewarded them with a mighty toot; a ship’s whistle that caused an outbreak of goose bumps. The Germans cheered and applauded when they heard the toot. I could see that it was a big thing for the locals when the “Prinsendam” came through the canal.

U.S. Embassy, Berlin
The famous statue of “The Little Mermaid” in the harbor at Copenhagen
Jewel Ray in front of the palace in Copenhagen
The canal traffic was heavy; barges, freighters, ferries, tugboats, oil tankers, along with every kind of personal yacht passed us in both directions. We saw every flag in the world as the Kiel has more traffic than even the Suez or Panama canals.

Occasionally we passed under a bridge that connected the two portions of severed Germany. The “Prinsendam” had to lower its mast in order to squeeze underneath. She is probably one of the very few ocean liners small enough to pass through the Kiel.

We saw the royal yacht of Denmark approaching. She was ordered to pull over to let us pass, probably because of our larger size, but it seemed quite amusing that a passenger ship came before the royal yacht. Such are the times and what must be to royalty, just one of the many little irritations of democracies.

The German countryside was beautifully checkered with neat farmhouses, barns and perfectly cultivated fields; land that appeared like a brown and green patchwork quilt. Every square inch of earth was in use. Cows grazed in bucolic meadows and the smell of manure drifted along with our ship only to fade away in passing villages.

Exiting the canal was as simple as entrance had been, and we were soon delivered by lock to the proper level of the awaiting Baltic Sea and steaming for Tallinn, Estonia. One of the provinces previously controlled by Russia, this nation has been joyously independent since 1992. With Russian troops now in Georgia, however, Estonians have reason to be nervous. With a population that is 50 percent Russian, Estonia may find that Putin may use the same rationalization to occupy it as was used for moving into Georgia . . . that being, “to protect its citizens.”

The weather turned cold and rainy; no more sitting on the verandah enjoying the view. Out came sweaters, slacks, parka and gloves. It was hard to believe it was August with temperatures dropping to the low 50s. I wondered what the Baltic Sea would be like during winter. A friend back home had warned me to take warm clothes on this cruise as to the saying . . . “every July an old witch arrives to the Baltic Sea and casts cold stones into the sea.”

With the wintry weather and rising seas, I took my first seasick pill. I checked out a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, a favorite author, from the library for a good Baltic Sea read.

The next morning we arrived in Estonia. It was pouring rain. Hunkered under umbrellas, we made our way through the gates to the quaint medieval city. The streets were heavily cobbled and walking was rough going. We were soon soaked and had to give up exploring the museums and antique shops, but not before I spotted a military collection of uniforms, weapons and artifacts from past wars. Poor Estonia has been so often the spoils of war as France, Germany, Russia and Scandinavian countries were constantly capturing it.

I saw a genuine Napoleonic helmet for 50,000 euros. I was tempted to buy it, but decided it would be out of place in downtown Urbanna.

That night, as the ship plowed through stormy seas, and as I sat reading my Chekhov, I heard a pounding on my stateroom door. The sound was so jolting that I thought of Edgar Allan Poe and his raven.

I opened the door to friends from Urbanna, also on the cruise, who told me that Old Dear had died.  Their daughter had called the ship with the devastating news. Bad news travels fast. It had reached me in the Baltic Sea on a ship bound for Russia, just 5 hours after his death.

So my worst fear had come about. My friend was gone. I stood on the verandah staring out at the rolling sea. So this was how life was to be. Once, it was the death of beloved dogs and parents that had so grieved me. But now, one by one, my dear friends were passing away. I would never again be able to leave home and not return to learn that someone I had cherished was gone.

 I knew that tomorrow I would be better. But on such a dark night I could only stand on the verandah and stare at the raging sea. ©2008

posted 09.18.2008

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