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One Woman's Opinion

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Baltic Sea Passage, Part 5

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.—The next morning the “ms Prinsendam” gingerly steamed through the 54-mile passageway known as the Stockholm Archipelago. I stood on my verandah and watched the sun break through the black clouds. Hurrah! The sun was out!  But it was 50 degrees as we inched into our berth amongst the 14 islands that formed the capital of Sweden.

I should have enjoyed the sun because minutes later it began to pour sheets of rain. We donned our usual storm gear and hopped on a shuttle bus that delivered us to the center of town. We were headed to an adjacent island to see the number one tourist attraction of the city: the Vasa Museum.

The good ship “Vasa” is Sweden’s version of “Titanic.” A massive, 700-ton wooden ship built in 1628, she had once been billed as the “greatest warship of her time.” Just as she was being commissioned, she turned over and sank with all the crew aboard. As we viewed her tremendous size, we could immediately understand what had happened. The ship was top heavy.

In 1961 she was discovered at the bottom of the river with skeleton crew and elegant furnishings well preserved by fresh water. After years of extensive work digging tunnels under her hull, and raising her carefully by cables and floats, she became the core of a seven-story museum. She was so mammoth that even though her hull fit snugly inside the museum, her three masts shot up to the sky through special holes built into the roof.

The “Vasa” is a must see on any Scandinavian tour. It was thrilling to stand and gaze upon such a beautifully carved monstrosity. Not designed to go to sea, of course, but to sit forever on land and be admired as yet another example of man’s great follies. She taught important lessons in life: keep it simple, skip the grandiose, and always remember the best design is the most practical design.

We headed back through the pelting rain to await our bus back to the “Prinsendam.” I saw a man in hip boots angling for salmon. He was standing in the rain in the center of the river that ran through Stockholm. Suddenly, a band turned the corner and marched by us, followed by the King’s Guard. They were on their way to the palace for the changing of the guard. Two uniformed women on horseback led the grand procession.

That night I looked at my watch and translated Baltic Sea time to Urbanna time. It was Friday afternoon in Virginia and I knew that Dr. Brockett Muir’s funeral had ended. He was probably, at this very moment, being interred in Christ Church graveyard while I was so far away, yet so very near in thoughts. As I stood on my verandah watching our ship pull out of her berth and head out to sea, I imagined I was standing with friends and family at the gravesite. It was some small comfort.  

I thought of my last visit with Brockett when he had shown me his watercolor series on his journey to death. “I am going to enjoy every minute of this adventure,” he had told me. His paintings showed his journey toward the shape of a red square painted boldly in the sky. It was so like him to see death as an exciting experience.

Then it happened. The sun came out and covered the world with a blinding layer of yellow gold. I blinked in the sudden bright light and looked up. As if by magic, the black clouds had disappeared, leaving me under a clear blue sky. The week of rain had passed.

I thought of Plato’s cave and his eternal image of man’s distortion of vision. Perhaps I had been in such a cave. Regardless, the 8-year-long spell with my mentor and muse had ended. I was free. I knew I would recover from my loss and that all would be well once again.

I was immersed in a life of thrilling new knowledge, excitement and adventure. My days were fulfilling. I was writing a journal, reading good books, exploring fascinating ports of call, meeting new friends, and being exposed to excellent lectures and seminars each day on subjects ranging from the history of the Czars to the life of the Vikings.

The food was marvelous, and when we were not in port, our days were filled with workouts in the gym or spa, brisk walks on the deck, or dancing at night. There were choices of first-run movies in the ship’s theatre or Broadway shows each night, in addition to games of bridge, scrabble, ping pong, golf and bingo. There were exercise rooms, swimming pools, mahjong lessons, and even culinary art lectures on how to prepare party hors d’oeuvres or how to fold napkins for a formal dinner party. There was a well-stocked library of books worth reading, magazines and movies.

My best moments were those on the verandah when I was alone with the sea, the sky and far horizons. I thought of Father’s constant advice: “Keep your eyes peeled on the far horizons, Mays,” he would tell me. I never thought to ask him why, as I was so inclined to do. Perhaps to spot an approaching ship?  

Occasionally, the captain would come on the ship’s public address system with some interesting facts. Our position, for example, or what to look for as we were making our way into some exotic new port, such as an old fort or a castle that was not to be missed, or another  ship from some distant country  approaching on our stern.

The captain was a handsome man with a Scandinavian name and a voice like God, deep and commanding, the sort of voice that a captain ought to have. Although he spoke English with a thick accent, it was a pleasure to hear him. The crew was Dutch with a Philippine and Indonesian staff. It made for a good blend of cultures.

My Baltic Sea Passage had been full of surprises. The greatest of all was a monumental leap in self-development. ©2008

(Conclusion next week)

posted 10.08.2008

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