Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Apple Pay” at Last!

Greetings everyone from the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk, Russia, home to around 300,000 hardy souls. Now in truth, I never expected to be able to write to you at this point in our trip, but we have successfully arrived at our starting destination one day early, and to my surprise, our hotel has complimentary Internet. Not only that, believe it or not, I have so much to tell you since I last wrote, that I simply did not want to wait for two weeks!

Let’s start with this issue of “Apple Pay.” Simply put “Apple Pay” is a way in which you can use your phone to electronically pay a restaurant bill or any purchase for that matter, simply by placing your phone on top of the checkout machine, and by using your thumbprint the bill is automatically charged to the credit card of your choice! Now I will admit that it is not yet even common at home, but it is becoming more so every day. I have turned that phrase, however, into a joke by asking at almost every location where we have shopped if I could pay by “Apple Pay?” Generally people look at me as if I’m crazy and speaking a foreign language, and if I explained, then in some cases they have heard of it, but their country does not yet support it. In fact, on this entire trip so far I have not yet been able to make a simple payment using “Apple Pay,” until today. It had gotten to the point that Lisa would give me a disapproving look every time I asked if I could use “Apple Pay,” because people simply did not understand, and she thought I was being rude rather than cute. Out of all the places in the world, I was finally able to use my phone to make a payment – at the northernmost “McDonald’s” in the world. Hooray for good ole “McDonald’s!!”

Our trip from Oslo to Murmansk was a rather roundabout journey. We departed Oslo at 6 AM in the morning on Lufthansa Airlines, Business Class, headed for Frankfurt Germany. I say that we were flying business class, however it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. We were seated in exactly the same seats as everyone else in the airplane, with the exception that there was no one placed in the center seat of a three seat configuration. The airline did put some kind of a strange contraption in the center seat which meant that you could not raise the armrest in order to gain extra room. In other words, we were pretty much flying a slightly modified Economy Class. From Frankfurt, we had a very short turnaround before departing on another Lufthansa flight with yet another slightly modified Business Class seat. This time we were headed into St. Petersburg, Russia.

There will several things that I have worried about with regard to this trip that I have not yet shared. For one thing if truth be told Lisa and I both are having a great deal of difficulty walking, and we have finally had to succumb to accepting wheelchairs. Now the macho male in me rebels at even the thought of this, but without the wheelchair there is absolutely no way that I could have done the necessary walking in these airport terminals. In addition to the wheelchair problem, I was very much concerned about what was going to happen to us when we arrived into St. Petersburg. I had had so much difficulty obtaining my Russian Visa that I have had nightmares of being turned away by the authorities. And finally, as if all of that was not bad enough, our next airline was going to be Aeroflot, and I was truly concerned if they had enough duct tape to hold the airplane together. Then, just to make things interesting, it appears that sometimes Aeroflot doesn’t talk to other airlines since our bags could not be transferred between airlines. That meant that when we arrived in St. Petersburg, we had to get our bags, exit the terminal, and find a way to get to the check-in counter where once again we had to go through security in order to find our gate. I will tell you the truth, I had many sleepless nights about how we were going to pull this off, particularly when you consider our limitations in walking.

Well, all my fears proved to be for naught. We were met at our airplane by two wheelchairs, and two young gentlemen, I came to call Frick and Frack. Both of these young men spoke excellent English, and they immediately understood our problem, even though in advance they had no idea that we would be transferring airlines, nor that we were going to be required to pick up our baggage in the process. At first, I wasn’t sure if they really understood what was needed, but the next thing I knew Lisa and I were off on the wheelchair rides of our lives. These two gentlemen were racing each other through the terminal trying to see which of them could get down the crowded walkways the fastest. I swear on more than one occasion I thought we were going to hit some young child or older person, only at the last minute to be subjected to a death-defying turn as we raced along at a record pace. As if that was not bad enough, these two gentlemen kept opening secure doors and taking us the back hallways and down hidden elevators. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the baggage claim area. We had two wheelchairs that needed pushing, they were each pulling behind them our carry-on bags, and now they had our full-blown suitcases to deal with! I tell you what, it didn’t even faze them. One of them grabbed a cart and put our bags on it, while the other somehow managed to push two wheelchairs down the hallway at the same time!

At this point, I figured we would have to go back outside again, but another series of back hallways and elevators suddenly brought us to the ticket counter where the lines were very long. Never mind the lines because Frick and Frack went right for the front. In the process, they took the passports out of our hands, and before we knew it, we had boarding passes, and the passports back, and our bags had been checked through to Murmansk. I will admit that we got more than a few hard stairs, but it was done. Then we were off through a series of tunnels, more elevators, backdoors, and suddenly we came to a private security line. It was here that Frick and Frank could not quite pull their magic. While we had no one in front of us, I would say that if anything security was more stringent on us than would have been the usual. They literally tore Lisa’s carry-on bag apart as well as her sleep apnea machine (CPAP). But except for this little snafu, the next thing we knew, we were standing in front of our departure gate. This entire process, about which I worried about so much probably took no more than 20 minutes. But wait, for Frick and Frack just realized that we were traveling Business Class! That means that we don’t want to go to our gate, but that we want to go to the special lounge reserved for Business Class passengers. So before we can say a word, there was another extended journey where we were carefully seated in the lounge with our bags at our side. I started to give Frick and Frank each a gratuity, but they declined saying that they would be back in time to see that we reached our flight in a time – and then they disappeared.

Well at precisely the right moment, they returned again. We were then off on yet another race through the terminal to see who could get to the gate first. WHOOSH! Arriving at the gate, there is no way that you can get to the front, so Frick and Frank find a way around the lines and before we know it, we are admitted to the boarding ramp, even before the plane was ready to board. Staying until we could board, then they took us onto the airplane, put our bags into overhead bins, and make sure that we were comfortably seated, and then Frick and Frack almost declined to gratuity.

I’m telling you this story, because it’s one of those that you simply can’t make up and you could never see it coming in advance. I was in for yet another surprise: Aeroflot Airlines. Lisa and I found ourselves in a very clean, modern Airbus 312, where in the small Business Class area, we were seated in some of the most luxurious, leather seats I have encountered. The two male attendants could not have been more accommodating to our needs, since we were the only passengers in Business Class. The Economy Section of the airplane was completely full. In other words, Murmansk doesn’t see a whole lot of tourists, even when it’s at the height of their tourist season.

For those of you who are pilot types, I will share with you my observation that our approach and landing into Murmansk was somewhat unusual. The airplane was doing a cruise altitude to what appeared to be around 5000 feet above the ground, about an hour away from Murmansk. As we descended the aircraft slowed down, and once we reached 5000 feet, it continued to slow until reaching an airspeed of around 130 knots. The reason this caught my attention is because an aircraft like this likely would land at 140 knots or so. At this point, the nose of the aircraft was very high. Several times the airspeed deteriorated to as low as hundred and 115 knots, and the pilot was having to use considerable power to keep the airplane at a level altitude. Why we had to fly so long, so low, and so slow is a mystery to me? However, it did make for an exciting flight.

We arrived at our hotel in early evening last night making for a very long day. We were escorted to our “Special Suite,” only to find a small room equivalent to a Motel 6. But hey, all things considered, it may have been a long day, but we are safe here in Murmansk, and with all of our bags, and I can put my fears to rest. I really did not think I would have a chance to share this with you before we set off on our great adventure, but I did have time this afternoon, and we have the Internet – so I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.

Take care everyone, and we’ll catch you on the flip!


Friday, June 23, 2017

It’s My 73rd Birthday--So Cut Me Some Slack!

I must ask your forgiveness; I started writing with great vigor about our 10 day voyage from London to Oslo, only to suddenly disappear from the scene. In truth, after I last wrote, our ship spent the day transiting the Kiel Canal, and after that, every day was another port until suddenly-the-cruise-was-over! I really did intend to write about our activities, but by the time we returned to the ship, had lunch, and took a quick nap, it was time for dinner. It just didn’t seem there was any time to write!

So now, I am sitting in a magnificent hotel room in Oslo, Norway trying to look back and make some sense of what we saw, and the best I can hope for is that since today is my 73rd birthday, you will cut me some slack, and allow me to give you just a brief overview. I might also point out that in truth, I think by photographs do as good a job of telling the story of our trip as if I were writing.

I last wrote to you after visiting Bruges in Belgium. The next day our ship transited the Kiel Canal. I am surprised at how few people are aware of this very important waterway. It is only 61 miles long, but it was completed way back in 1895. It connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea, and saves shipping between the two bodies of water which would be over 300 miles. There is a lock at either end of the canal, but they are mainly to regulate tidal flow since the two bodies of water connected are basically at the same level. The canal can handle up to 130 vessels per day, and a normal transit time is 7 to 8 hours. The cruise ships are generally given priority for a daytime transit, however, when we arrived one of the locks in the canal had malfunctioned, and we were forced to spend many hours waiting for an opportunity to finally enter the canal late in the day. All was not lost in terms of our being able to view the beautiful countryside because we were in a part of the world which was enjoying almost 24 hours of sunlight per day.

In fact, let me talk about that; yesterday, June 21, was the “summer solstice.” Where we live, I doubt most people even pay much attention to that date. But in the northern latitudes of the world, it is a cause for celebration, and is generally a big event. Yesterday, here in Oslo, they enjoyed 22 ½ hours of sunlight which also means that six months from now they will endure the same amount of darkness. As Lisa and I travel north from here, we will get into the realm of the world where there is light 24 hours a day this time of year.

After the canal, our first port of call was Wismar, Germany. For most of our passengers, this was to be the Gateway City for visiting the German Capital City, Berlin. However, because of our delayed transit through the canal, the full day trips to Berlin had to be canceled. Having been to Berlin many times, Lisa and I had already planned a day excursion in the area to the city of Schwerin. The primary reason that someone visits this city is to view the Sherwin Castle. This is a palatial estate that was built in the 1850’s. Today it houses the administrative offices for the local government, but parts of the interior have been restored to their formal elegance and can be toured. Since we had been here once before, we opted for a walk around the palatial grounds. One interesting little story involves our driver. Realizing that we were not able to walk very far, he drove our limousine right up to the very gates of the castle and parked. When we left for our walk, he was approached by the guards and told to move on, but he told them confidentially that we were relatives of the U.S. President Trump here on a private visit, and the guards immediately told him to stay where he was. Following our walk around the palace, we visited the famous Cathedral that dates from the 1300’s. Afterwards we returned to our ship, and before we knew it the day was gone.

The next morning we opened our curtains to find ourselves in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. This is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but sadly that day, in my opinion, the city was literally overrun with tourists. Lisa and I tried to reach the world famous statue of the Little Mermaid, but the crowds were so deep, that we gave up in frustration and moved on. We did manage to make the “changing of the guard ceremony” at the Royal Palace, but here again we were virtually unable to even get pictures so large were the crowds. Since neither of us were able to walk any significant distance for the most part, our tour of Copenhagen was by car, and once again, we returned to the ship where before you knew it, time for dinner.

One of the wonderful things about cruising is that each morning you throw open the window, and potentially you are in yet another world. So it was this day that we found ourselves at Aarhus, Denmark. Neither of us had ever been to this city before, so this was a special treat. The city is home to an extensive open air museum where old houses throughout Denmark have been brought together. It is also home to a wonderful botanical garden, but both of these attractions required some considerable walking which we simply were not up to. We did enjoy our visit to the Cathedral which dated from the 12th century, and later we did walk through parts of the city that were quite old, but also quite well-preserved. People still live in these small, 17th century homes, and as our guide told us, they are also “some of the most, pricey real estate” in the city. Once again, we continued to be impressed every time that we visit Denmark with its cleanliness, and with the friendliness of its people.

By now, I know you realize what’s coming – the next morning we opened our door and we were in Gothenburg, Sweden. The highlight of this day was without question our ability to spend the morning touring with my son, Jay, and his family. Best of all we got to spend the day with our charming and adorable 20-year-old granddaughter, Jennifer. Along the way, we did visit one of their historic churches, which was located at the top of the hill with panoramic views of the city. We also visited the area of the city known as Haga which is a historic walking area. Finally we did go to their botanical garden, and even though Lisa and I could not walk very much, we did get some excellent photographs of flowers in this most beautiful of locations.

Of course, as you might guess, what came next is that we through open our window the next morning, and found ourselves in Arendal, Norway. This is a small and scenic Norwegian coastal town, without any special or unique attractions that we are aware of. Lisa and I were going to take a short morning bus tour offered by the ship, but both of us at that point were quite apprehensive about all that we had to do to prepare to leave the ship the following morning. So, we gave our tickets to the kids. When they returned from their excursion, they said that they spent almost 3 hours in a bus driving around, with only two short 10 minute stops. They were not very happy with the experience, and they had what I have been known to call a “spam in a can tour.” What was concerning Lisa and me was the necessity for getting ready for our big North Pole adventure. We had made arrangements with the cruise line to send one of our bags home by FedEx, and we were going to put into that bag all of our fancy clothes and shoes, and only take with us into Russia those things that we absolutely needed. Once we got that accomplished, which took some time, we had a quick lunch on board the ship, and then went for a walk around the small town. It was a beautiful day and a wonderful place to just find a bench in order to people watch. You might find it of some interest, but the bag we left on board ship the following day has already been delivered to our home in Kansas City. Indeed it got there just about as fast as we could have ourselves.

And so on opening the window the next morning, we found ourselves in Oslo, Norway being politely invited to depart the ship early so that they could prepare it for the next voyage. We went to our lovely hotel where we had been offered early check-in, only to find that there would be a “slight delay in getting our room.” As it turns out, we did not get to our room until after 4 PM that day, and needless to say Lisa and I were bone tired. What we decided to do while we had all that time to spare, was to make the short walk to the nearby national Gallery. It was only three blocks away so we thought we could walk it on our own. While we made the journey, it was extremely difficult on both of us, and we were exhausted by the time we arrived at the museum. The museum itself looked so unimpressive, that we hesitated to even go inside since it required that we climb stairs to get in. However, having made the effort, in the end, we decided to see what it had to offer. Boy, would it have been a tragedy had we not gone into that Museum!

It appeared that the only way up to the exhibits was to climb two very long flights of stairs. However, the guards were very accommodating to take us way into the back to a service elevator that took us upstairs. When we exited, “I asked the guard “where is the Impressionist Gallery?” and he pointed ahead to the left, and said the important pictures are “there.” Well “there” turned out to be a large gallery that had only one way “in” and “out,” and on either side of the doorway stood a guard, and within the gallery itself, I counted five guards constantly circulating amongst the people. The gallery was home to a small, but important collection of the works by Edvard Munch, a famous Norwegian artist. Several of the artworks were protected by cleverly designed bulletproof shields. The most famous painting that I recognized was called “The Scream.” I would say that every one of the works in the gallery was totally outstanding, and if the gallery was all this unimpressive Museum had to offer, it would have been well worth the visit. But wait, this was only a small portion of the gallery. So after leaving the Munch collection, we turned the corner to find several large rooms of Impressionist paintings. Virtually every famous painter of that era was represented in those rooms. There were Renoir’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, and more, much more. What they did not have in those rooms was the presence of guards. In any other museum in the world, these paintings would have been considered an invaluable treasure. But here in Norway, the paintings of their local artists deserve the most security while the rest of the museum was sort of an afterthought – but what an afterthought it was.

For the next two days, we had a private car drive us for several hours each morning around the area. Our driver turned out to be a recently retired police Captain from the Immigration Offices, and who was also rather well known for his activities in many high profile charitable organizations. I must tell you that in a blitz of activity, we literally saw everything that Oslo had to offer. If we couldn’t walk it, he made sure that we got as close as possible so that we could see and photograph it. Today on my birthday, he arrived at the hotel with a small Norwegian flag! Early in the morning he had attempted to find an American flag, but failing to do so he brought the Norwegian one. He then required me to carry the flag for the entire day that we were together in order to show everyone that I was celebrating my 73rd birthday. I’m sure you can catch a sense of just how much fun we had with this gentleman.

For now I would like to share with you my new website for photographs. It is a long story as to how my photographs have ended up at this location, but I am very pleased with this website. I have not had a great deal of time to organize all of the historical pictures, but at least the gallery entitled “Best of Best” is current, and the last several years have been organized and listed by year. If you just wish to see the pictures from this trip, you may skip directly there by going to

So what happens now? For one thing Lisa and I are going to disappear for two weeks. Tomorrow, we will spend the entire day making our way to the very northern coast of the Russian Arctic to the city of Murmansk. We have been told that we will be met at the airport, but I’m not 100% sure that. We have also been told that if we are met, do not expect that our driver will speak English, but he will know where we are to be taken. The following morning I think that we may have arranged for a tour of the city, but again I’m not certain. Neither the company that sponsors this trip, nor our travel agent were able to arrange a sightseeing trip. I bravely got online and found a Russian company which offered a trip, and after about 16 emails I finally received some official looking piece of paper that bears a stamp and signature that appears to indicate we will be met by someone at our hotel. If they don’t show up, then I’m out the money because they have already charged my credit card. The following day we will meet our fellow passengers as we spend the day going through security in order to board the most powerful nuclear icebreaker in the world. It is housed within the Russian naval base at Murmansk, and it will be our home for the next two weeks. The brochure says that we can expect to reach the North Pole, and along the way to explore some of the beautiful sites of the northern Arctic. There will be no cell service, nor will there be internet. The good news is that our room will have a private toilet, and that is just about all I know of what we are getting ourselves into!

I do plan to write during what I consider the journey of a lifetime for us, but obviously I will not be able to share these until we return home. So keep your fingers crossed and hope that we come out the other end.

I hope everyone is well,

Please take care,


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Held Captive in Bruges, Belgium

Map picture

Belgium may be a small county with a total population of only 11 million people, but with the Capital of the European Union being located in its major city of Brussels, it has a large importance to the countries of Europe.

Our ship docked at the port city of Antwerp, and from there it was only a 90 minute drive to Brussels. However, Brussels really had no appeal to us because along the West Flanders coast were some of the most historic cities in Europe, specifically the cities of Ghent and Bruges. So, for our first day off the ship, we took a private car and intended to head to the nearest of the two cities, Ghent. Once on the super highway while moving along at 122 km, Lisa and I became engaged in some substantive conversations with our amazing guide, and without realizing it, we flew right by Ghent and ended up in Bruges. To be honest, I completely forgot that we were even set to go to Ghent!

Our guide was a stately gentleman of some 64 years who as it turns out, had recently retired as CEO of one of the largest corporations in Europe. At that time, he was managing the interest of the third wealthiest family in Brussels. He had started with no education working as a blue collar worker, but by doing night school, he eventually acquired an Engineering Degree, an Economics Degree and eventually a Law Degree. On his way up the corporate ladder, he had travelled all over the world, and was fluent in 5 languages. Our discussion really started as he was describing the socialist system of Belgium and extolling its virtues. In essence, the government of Belgium through its taxation policies, redistributes income. Those at the top pay handsomely, while everyone is guaranteed a wage, and education to the best of their ability, free and timely healthcare, and eventually a good retirement. He made it sound almost idyllic, hence the intense conversation.

Upon reaching Bruges, I flat did not remember until we had dinner that evening, we were supposed to have gone someplace else! But wait – it gets even worse – within 10 minutes of seeing Bruges, I realized that Lisa and I had been there several years ago, but neither of us recalled that until then! Anyway, Bruges is the Capital and largest city in the province of West Flanders in the northwest of Belgium. It was first mentioned in the literature around 850, but came into its golden age around the 12th to the 15th century when it was a major trade center. Today it is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Indeed Bruges is one of the most well-preserved Medieval Towns in Europe. To walk around town is like visiting some historic old open air museum. Everywhere you look there is living history. We entered the city near one of the remaining Beguinage still in existence. These convent-like enclosures were similar to nunneries; however, a woman could choose to leave at some point, and still take her possessions with her. The last resident of this enclave died just a few years ago at the age of 93. From there, we meandered around the cobblestone streets, and across bridges under which beautiful swans floated slowly by. The atmosphere was surreal. Because we were having trouble walking, we took a 30 minute boat ride which covered the many canals throughout the city thus allowing us to see most of what the city had to offer from the outside. At this point, we sat down for a lunch in a quiet restaurant where our table looked out over one of the many waterways which was surrounded by castles and tall church spires. Before we knew it, the day ended as our spirited discussions from lunch continued in the car all the way back to the ship. But, there was one small – no make that one big problem – we were trapped in Bruges.

You see the medieval city was built in a circle, and it was surrounded by water as a means of protection. There were only five bridges which allowed access into the old area of town. The city itself has only a small network of very narrow roads, most of which are one way. The trick is to know in advance which way the next junction will go. So after working around and around in circles to get onto one of the roads which exited the city, we came to a sudden halt. As we were approaching the bridge over the waterway, it rose up in response to some vessel requiring passage. Before our eyes, slowly slid a very large barge which just stopped! After the longest time, we realized that it was stuck in the narrow bridge inlet, and could move neither backwards nor forwards. So, our bridge became impassable. In addition, the way in which their bridges are interconnected, the previous bridge also stayed open not receiving the necessary signal to signal that the canal was clear. This meant that 2 of the 5 bridges allowing transit to the city were closed. It was all we could do to get out of our line, only to join everyone else who was also trying to exit the city. Because the City had recently implemented a new traffic plan, neither our driver nor the GPS had any clear way out of this mess. We drove for what seemed like forever before accidently ending up on an exit road. Until then, and for the last hour, we were Captive in Bruges.

After a fun day, we had dinner with our son, his wife, and our granddaughter (now 20 years old – time flies.) It was at dinner when we were asked how we liked Ghent, that we realized that something was not right. Ah well; just chalk it up to old age.

The next day dawned bright at last, and while our ship had moved overnight from Antwerp to Zeebrugge, both in Belgium, in point of fact, we were still in the same area as the day before. So, this time we set out for Ghent, which would have us driving by Bruges – but it was only 30 miles extra to go all the way to the destination we should have gone the day before. Everyone got that – it still confuses me! On the way, our guide was excited to take us off the main roads to visit the small quiet village of Lissewege. Since we had already seen Bruges, when we got there, she assured us that this would be a new experience. Well, wouldn’t you know – we’d been there before – I mean, no joke. The only thing different was that the town church, which was built in 1225, was open this time for us to visit. Never-the-less, it was nice to see a quiet village still going about life seemingly oblivious to the outside world.

By this point, I fully expected to have been to Ghent before but to my surprise Ghent was to be a new experience. I am really proud that Lisa and I managed to walk all around this beautiful city, even stopping for a famous waffle. But when we could walk no more and called it a day, it was on the way home that we realized that we had not entered so much as one building or church – shame on us!

I do have some beautiful photographs of our trip so far, and I will let the pictures do the talking. Just as soon as I can, I’ll share my new web page with pictures of our trip.

Hope all is well,