There’s a group of us in of a WWII submarine museum in St Petersburg, Russia. Across one wall is a glass cabinet full of miniature models of submarines from the first ones built in the city straight through the modern day submarines that are still in use. “Russia recently announced the largest submarine in the world,” our tour guide translates from the museum docent’s lecture. “It displaces 24,000 tons.”
“For reference, our cruise ship weighs 138,000 tons,” says Howard. “Much bigger, but doesn’t have nearly as much firepower.”
“This submarine has twenty ballistic missile launches, each of which can hold ten nuclear warheads.” A pause. “We hope we never have to use them.”
Howard: “We hope so too.”
Everyone in the room shares a dark laugh. If Russia ever does have to use those nukes, we all know who they’re going to use them on.
Our tour guide in Copenhagen is used to giving tours in German, and is a little rusty with her English. Many of her anecdotes about Copenhagen history end with “And I…forget the word.” I don’t think there’s anything lost in translation, though, when she tells us that the Little Mermaid statue, having been moved further out into the water for its own protection, is easier to take photos of now that it isn’t “covered in Japanese.” Later, while our bus takes a sharp turn in the middle of the city, we crunch into a post and have to sit, parked diagonally across the entire intersection, blocking all lanes of traffic, while the driver gets out to inspect the damage.
Dea is our tour guide in Estonia, and she speaks with a dry humor and an accent that turns her words up at the end.
“To the right we have the war memorial,” she says as we approach a bare concrete structure with a sharp tower sticking straight up into the sky. “We call it ‘the grave of Pinocchio.'”
Later, going through the city, she points out the Hotel Viru, where foreign visitors to Tallinn were required to stay during the Soviet occupation. “While it was being built, the KGB would sometimes dismiss all the builders for the day and bring in their own builders. There was a whole secret floor inside the hotel. We would say that it was made of new ‘microconcrete’—fifty percent microphones and fifty percent concrete.”
On our way to the old city, we pass a different tour bus just starting the same route despite leaving the ship at the same time and she is quietly proud of our efficiency. “We’re making great time,” she says.
The guide in Stockholm gives the tour in perfect English and German, switching smoothly from one to the other, since our group is half and half. He walks us around cobblestone streets, taking us down the narrowest road in Europe and showing us Stockholm’s tiniest statue. At the palace, he tells us that the changing of the guard happens at noon, but we won’t want to see it because it’s too crowded and hard to see. Instead, he shows us where we can stand to get front row access as the guards come in on horseback, led by a band. When they come through, they’re so close that the horses nearly step on our feet.
The Icebar in Stockholm is a small, refrigerated room in a hotel. We’re each given heavy ponchos with attached mittens, and we have to wait in line for the previous group to come out before we can shuffle into the airlock. Everything in the bar is made of ice, from the walls to the furniture to the glasses. All of it comes form the Torne River up north. The bartender serves vodka and lingonberry juice, and when we’re done with our glass, we can slide it down an ice chute into a warm water bath.
On the way to and from Copenhagen, we pass under Øresund Bridge, the longest bridge in Europe. It’s eight miles long and connects Sweden and Denmark. Our ship barely fits under its highest point. On the night we’re meant to pass back under it, I head up to the highest point of the ship we can reach without being in first class. When the bridge skims by overhead, just six feet over our smokestack, everyone cheers.
They tell us not to smile when we go through passport control in St. Petersburg. Smiling makes us look suspicious. Putin just threw all the American ambassadors out of Russia a couple days before we arrived, and we want to be as inoffensive as possible to make sure we make it out of the country. I make it through fine by looking as bored as possible, but many of the men in the group are asked if they are American soldiers. In the city, though, they’re not nearly as strict about making us stay with our guides as the ship had made it seem. Our guide, Konstantin, takes us through the Metro and the subway train nearly leaves without half of our group.
Several days on the ship, the doors leading to the outside deck have chains across them and signs warning about high winds. This isn’t really an issue until the final night of the cruise, when I’m trying to find my way to the farewell cocktail party. It’s set in the Liquid Disco, which is on the 16th floor of the ship and which is only accessible by one elevator. I choose the wrong elevator and come out on the fifteenth floor into an incredible wind. I’m wearing high heels, which doesn’t help as the wind nearly slides me down the deck. Luckily the ship has glass walls at strategic places along the deck that block the wind and allow you to open doors without them being ripped from your hands.
On the ship, the head waiter keeps track of my milk allergy. Every night, I order my meal for the next evening. They don’t actually tell me which meals can be made without milk, so I choose the things that look easily modifiable. One night the head waiter calls me on it and says I can choose whatever I want. I don’t have to choose stuff I don’t want just because it’s easy. Just tell him what I want and they’ll do it. I tell him I want the tortellini. He hesitates. “We can’t make that,” he says finally.
The first few days, they give me some fruit for dessert, since obviously all the other desserts have milk in them. Then one night the head waiter shows up with three packages of Italian desserts, the kind you might buy in a gas station. They’re dairy and gluten free and they’re pretty terrible–basically made of pressed powder that falls apart when you touch it. After that they get a little more experimental, giving me meringue or jello or even some apple pie without the ice cream. On the final night they give me a fancy tart with meringue. Someone has written “lactose free” on the plate in raspberry syrup. This is actually very concerning, since lactose isn’t the problem, but hey, at least they tried.
We stay another day in Kiel, Germany when we get off the boat. The day is warm and gorgeous, but I end up napping through most of it. In the evening we head up to Deck 8, the hotel’s rooftop bar, and we’re just in time to see our ship pull out of the Kiele Fjord for another cruise.