Blue Hill at Stone Barns!

Sometimes an experience is so monumental that a picture being worth a thousand words is still inadequate. An attempt to capture the experience of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in words and pictures is truly futile, but it will help me to remember the experience and share it with those who might be interested.

Our dinner reservation was for 8:30 pm, and they suggested arriving around 30 minutes early to walk the grounds and possibly have a drink before being seated. We arrived a bit after 7:00, because we didn’t want to feel rushed. Stone Barns was the Rockefeller’s dairy farm at one point, and I believe I remember correctly that it was donated to Blue Hill for the restaurant. Further research might be needed.

Once we parked, we weren’t quite sure where to go, so we wandered around the gorgeous grounds a bit until we ran into a very helpful young man. He was so perfectly pleasant that he was almost Stepford-esque. Unfortunately, we didn’t get his name. I’ll call him Nigel. He suggested that we look at the vegetable gardens, the walk around to see the greenhouses, where we might see some sheep and chickens. Finally we should wrap back around an make our way inside to the bar. Nigel said he would meet us there.

We weren’t exactly dressed for walking around a garden, or really for walking anywhere. Bree was wearing heels, and I was wearing new shoes that were starting to give me a blister on one foot. We suffered, though, and made it look good.

There were some young tomato plants and some peas growing. I’m sure there was plenty other produce growing, but that is as far as we ventured into the vegetable garden. On our walk over to the greenhouses, we took a few photos, and we also saw the chickens. As we approached a door, which we hoped led to the right place, someone (not Nigel) offered to take a picture of us. As we entered, we were greeted by Nigel, who instructed us to make ourselves comfortable, and someone else found out our names so they knew we had arrived for our reservation.

Nigel brought us a turmeric spritzer, along with a towel for our hands. We looked at the drink menu and felt it was necessary to order one of the creative cocktails. Mine was called “Rhubarb Reviver,” and Bree’s was “Bad Reputation.” I wish I had taken a picture of the cocktail menu! We requested to go outside, and Nigel escorted us out there. That is the last we saw of him, unfortunately.

The sun was setting as we sat on the patio overlooking the farm. Over to our right, someone was grilling things. We had not yet had a bite to eat, but everything was so perfect.

Right at 8:30, someone found us and took us to our table. The dining room was beautiful. The lighting was perfect, and a long table with an amazing floral spread was in the center of the dining room. I would estimate that 50 people were there. On our table was a booklet, a napkin, a flower arrangement, and a birthday greeting for Bree. It was explained that they would start bringing us food soon and that there was no silverware on the table. Silverware would be provided when they thought we needed it.

I tried taking notes about the courses as they were brought to us, but I missed some of the details. The first course was baby vegetables. They were lightly dressed/seasoned with something, and they were delicious. We experienced the true flavor of each vegetable.

Next, a server came by with a vase holding fennel fronds and said “a flower delivery.” We each took a frond and ate it. The stalk part tasted like fennel, as one would expect, but the frond part was quite sweet.

Next, we were presented with turnips with peach something (a description I missed). The person who brought it dusted the plate with poppy seeds as if he were sprinkling glitter.

Around the same time was a plate of pickled stuff (also missed the description). By this time, I think we were beginning to be simultaneously overwhelmed, amused, comfortable, and having a great time. Each “course” was presented by a different person, who placed it in front of us, pleasantly recited the description, and walked away. It was never a stuffy or pretentious experience, and everyone was so kind and charming. If we had a question, they were happy to answer.

I almost forgot the wine. Instead of the doing the “Unconventional Pairings,” we asked if they could give us two glasses each throughout the evening that would work well with the food we would be served. We first had white and later red. For each glass, we were given a taste of two different wines to see which we prefer, then a glass was poured. I could have done that all night long, and next time I might like to have the experience of the unconventional pairings.

Moving on with dinner, we were served kohlrabi (another missed description). Around about the same time, we each got a small cone of beef tendon popcorn (kind of like pork rinds).

We were also served weeds (on the arched structure), which came with a dressing for dipping. As the weeds were presented, it was explained that many weeds that grow are actually quite tasty.

Along with the weeds, we were served duck feet. Duck feet! The closest thing I could compare them to is crispy chicken skin. We also got some grilled fava beans.

We’ve now come to a highlight of the whole meal, which was pork liver with chocolate. Although I’m pretty adventurous, liver always scares me a bit. This was heavenly!

Finally, we were given silverware, which was wrapped in a satchel. Amazing.

All evening we had observed someone walking around the dining room with what appeared to be a branch from a tree. He finally visited our table and explained that what he was carrying was knotweed, which is apparently related to rhubarb. What arrived next was a knotweed spritzer. Perhaps this was a palate cleanser, because it seemed to be a turning point in the meal.

What came next was bones, asparagus, and cheese. The asparagus was what they called asparagus tartare with strawberry compote. What made this particularly interesting is that the server showed us three different egg yolks on a tray. One was from the typical egg that is raised on the farm, the other was from chickens that had been fed red peppers (the yolks were red). I actually can’t remember what the other variety of yolks was. We were to choose a yolk, and the server would grate a bit of it on top of the asparagus dish. This is one of my few minor complaints about the whole dinner. It would have been better if we could have tasted each yolk to decide which we wanted. There wasn’t really enough grated on the dish to taste it, so the idea was really interesting but I feel that the experience could have been more fulfilling.

The bones were very interesting. A white bone and a black bone were placed on our table to explain how bones are recycled. The server explained that the black bone had been carbonated in their carbonizer. These bones are used as charcoal for the grill. They are also used in aging the cheese that we were served. They called it bone char cheese, and it was so lovely with the oat bread. It looks like brie, and that is how it tasted, except a bit better.

The other very interesting thing about the bones is that a scientist from Philadelphia is studying the difference between bones from animals raised on their farm versus bones from animals raised in less ideal conditions. He makes bone china from the bones and has found that it is significantly stronger. The cheese and bread were served on this china, and I believe other courses were as well.

Next up were two courses that really made me laugh. The first was described as “joy choy with last year’s sardines.” Joy choy is related to bok choy, and it was not explained why last year’s sardines were used instead of this year’s sardines!

Bathroom break:

Following the joy choy and old sardines was “duck from recent slaughter.” It was served on top of some stones and was absolutely divine! This was served with a bit of asparagus stew. At this point we had also moved on to our red wine selection. I wish I had made notes on the wine, but there’s only so much I can do!

The lady who seemed to be our main server appeared and instructed us to gather our silverware satchel so that we could go on a little journey with her. She put our wine glasses on a small tray and escorted us out to the dreamy “shed” we had seen earlier in the evening. On the way there, she asked where we were from. She was interested to know that I am from Atlanta and mentioned that one of the other servers is from Atlanta and talks about going to Staplehouse, where I recently had an amazing dining experience.

Back to the shed! She told us that we would be served a course there, so she left us alone for a while. Then, a few minutes later, someone else brought us “the first of the peas with pullet egg.” It was delicious, and this part of the evening was especially magical. It’s hard to imagine how they coordinate the timing of everything so that everyone gets a turn in the shed. After we finished there, she took us on a short walk to show us some things, such as the herb garden. She explained that they were waiting for the chamomile to be ready so that all of their teas could come from the garden.

Soon after we returned, someone came by and took our “flower” arrangement and replaced it with orchids because they were going to cook the other one for us. It was an arrangement of “Christmas tree” (spruce or fir?) and asparagus. They also changed our candle. Also, the person from Atlanta ca,e by for a nice little chat.

What came next was most interesting. Simply put, we were served tacos that we had to assemble; however none of the ingredients were “normal.” First of all, the meat was a fish head. Then we had a lazy Susan with pea guacamole, bacon salsa, cream, greens, and a seasoned salt. The tortilla shells were made from something interesting too, but I have forgotten. This was all explained very quickly. However, despite the weirdness and lack of instruction, it was delicious and fun. There was a surprising amount of edible flesh available on the fish head. I truly wonder who got to eat the rest of the fish, though!

Following the fish head tacos was a plate of pork. It wasn’t really explained at all, but we definitely had pork belly and tenderloin. Also, our asparagus was served on top of the Christmas tree sprigs! They had grilled it for us.

Following that was a salad of experimental greens. I believe there was also duck involved in the salad. What made this particularly interesting was the dressing. The server arrived with a small copper pot. She explained what was in it, such as balsamic vinegar, etc. She took our candle and poured the melted stuff into the pot and said, “Don’t worry. It’s not wax. It’s beef tallow.” Melted beef fat was the fat portion of the salad dressing! She then poured the dressing onto our salads. Fascinating and delicious!

Along with the salad was served bone marrow. I find bone marrow to be delectable and disturbing at the same time.

Finally, around midnight, it was time for dessert. They brought out a tiny birthday cake for Bree. I believe it was a cheesecake.

Following that was the real dessert, which was a dollop of ice cream (scooped at the table) on top of slivers of rhubarb. They also poured a small amount of a chocolate sauce on the side of the ice cream. It is barely visible. This dessert was very nice and not very sweet. The rhubarb was tangy, the ice cream was creamy and not sweet, and the chocolate provided the most sweetness.

Alongside the ice cream was a small soufflé in a glass cup. It was amazingly delicious. The soufflé and the ice cream were both made from the same cream, which I believe they described as reduced milk, or something along those lines.

Just when we thought we were finished, we were served one more course. There was honeycomb, strawberries, cherries, and rhubarb needles in a haystack. Two of the strawberries were pickled and were quite tasty. The rhubarb needles were fun, but I did not find them particularly good to eat. Along with dessert, we also ordered a green tea and a latte.

This is why I couldn’t just post photos of the meal. I think they needed explanation. Believe me, it was not the quantity of the food that made the meal amazing. It was the creativity, inventiveness, and the overall experience, along with the flavor of the food that made the meal mind-blowing. As we left the building around 1:00 am, we were encouraged to return during another season. There are so many other restaurants in the world to explore, but I truly do hope that I will dine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns again, especially since I learned just before writing this that it has been named the #12 restaurant in the world. Congratulations to Chef Dan Barber on winning Chef’s Choice Award, which was awarded by his peers.

What a night. What a place. What a meal. I’ll never forget it!

My Day in Havana

As usual, I woke early, and I’m glad I did. It was before sunrise, and I went up to the observation deck (I was on a cruise–Norwegian Sky) to see what I could see. When I first got up there, it was still pretty dark, and you could see lights in the distance. As I made my way to the front of the ship, I found a good place to hang out to watch the sunrise as we approached Havana. There were probably 20 people out there, and typical for the sunrise crowd, it was pretty quiet. There was a different mood as we approached Havana, though. One man standing near me seemed reflective, and I’d say it’s possible that he was originally from Cuba. For me, it was somewhat surreal to be approaching this forbidden island that I’ve heard of my whole life. As I prepared for my trip, I did quite a bit of research to understand the history of what had happened there. That made me more excited to actually be there. Norwegian Cruise Line could not have planned the approach to Cuba better, and I don’t really believe that they did plan to arrive precisely as the sun was rising. It was absolutely stunning to see the dramatic colors of the sky along with the dramatic architecture of Havana.

I got some breakfast and went back to my cabin to get ready for the day. I was scheduled to meet Ramona and Donna at 8:15. Ramona noticed that I was traveling solo when we were waiting in the cruise terminal in Miami, and she asked if I would like to join her and her daughter on their day in Havana. They had arranged a tour guide to take them on a walking tour and classic car tour. I’m so glad that I met her and accepted her offer. It was a wonderful day. My only condition was that we went to the place I had planned to have lunch!

It took a while to get off the ship and through customs. In addition to the lines of people disembarking, there was a computer problem in the immigration line. We made it, though, and we met Luis, our tour guide, right on time at the Russian Orthodox church. He was very friendly and spoke excellent English. He apologized, though, because he had been giving tours in German recently. He told us that he learned German on his own! Also, his previous career was as an English teacher. The meeting place was also very close to the Havana Club Rum Museum, so we stopped by there to arrange a tour for later. We then started our walking tour, which was necessary since cars are not allowed on many of the streets in the Old Town. Here are some of the sights along the way:

Meeting Luis, our guide

A place where Cubans go for their rations
So, the woman is kind of interesting, but the building is the actual subject
Government building
Train car that used to transport important people
I was enjoying this guy’s music. Wished I had some coins to give him.
We were told that this has something to do with women wearing the pants.
Plaza vieja
Plaza Vieja with a sculpture of the national flower

Looking into the hotel where Hemingway stayed for a while.

“Shrine” to Heminway at Hotel Ambos Mundos

Old apothecary shop
Trompe l’oeil
Catedral de la Habana

C

Me with my mojito
Inside La Bodeguita del Medio (Hemingway’s place for mojitos)
Wooden street pavers

Going up the stairs at the rum museum
Courtyard at the rum museum

Tasting after the tour. Donna won a drink for answering a question

After the rum tour, we finally met our car, which was a green Oldsmobile. I thought 61 was the date, but someone told me that’s after the trade embargo. Maybe it was 58? Here it is, along with the Russian Orthodox church in the background.

Our first stop on the car tour was lunch at La Guarida. I read about this over and over as I was researching Havana, so this was the one place that I felt I must visit for a meal. La Guarida is a paladar, which is a restaurant run out of a private residence. If I had been walking, I likely would have missed it. Part of the charm is the staircase that looks like it’s in ruins. It was a fun surprise to see the linens hanging to dry as we walked up the stairs. Some photos from our experience there:

Yucca Fritters
Ropa Vieja–Yum!

The check was presented in this beautiful box

The handwashing area outside the toilets.
View from La Guarida.

I wish I knew what this wall says.

Next stop was the Hotel Nacional, which was modeled after The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida. I was excited to see that since The Breakers is one of my favorite places to visit in Palm Beach (just to visit–not to stay). It was interesting to see that it actually was very similar in design, especially from the outside. The inside was similar too, but a bit less fancy, as one might expect.

A menu at the restaurant, featuring photos of famous people.

We then went to the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). It’s very important to the politics of Cuba (description from Wikipedia).

Luis, the tour guide, then took us to a shop to buy rum and cigars. Although I have no interest in smoking anything, I bought three cigars to give to people who might appreciate them. I also bought 3 different small bottles of rum (for research). As Donna and I left the shop, we found Ramona outside enjoying a cigarillo.

Although Havana Club is more popular, it seems that Cubans prefer Santiago de Cuba rum.

Next stop was La Floridita, where Hemingway went to drink daiquiris. It’s also known as the birthplace of the daiquiri! It was a fun experience with live music playing.

A few other sights as we ended our tour:

Bacardi Building–they moved to Puerto Rico after the revolution.
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso (Alicia was a famous ballerina)
Capitol
HUGE flea market

I went back to the ship for dinner, rested a bit, and went back out by myself. Although the streets were dimly lit, I felt more safe walking alone there than I would on many streets in Atlanta. It was great to see Havana at night! I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up, but I had a few places marked on my map. I had downloaded Havana in Google Maps, and I was very happy the the GPS worked even without cellular service. I ended up at a place called Siá-Kará Café. There were some great musicians playing, especially the saxophonist. I got a seat at the bar and ordered a Cuba Libre and flan. Both were wonderful. I had a great conversation with one of the servers, and it was very interesting to get his take on life in Cuba. By the way, I didn’t pry. He just started telling me about his life. On my next trip to Havana, I hope to visit there again!

Gran Teatro at night

Flan & Cuba Libre

A few more photos of the walk back to the ship:

Supposed to be a good place to go

The next morning, we were still in Havana until 11:30. I decided to just stay on the ship, since I had a very full day from 8:15am until almost midnight. I chose to keep that beautiful day as my Havana experience. Another thing is that I spent over $200! You could spend much less per day, but I’d say I packed about 3 days of enjoyment and exploration into one. I was eating a wonderful lunch in the main dining room as we sailed away from Havana:

Ah, I can’t wait to go back!

Belated Post from June 26/27

I began my final morning feeling pretty well rested, and the sun was shining beautifully, so I decided to go out for one last stroll. There was an area that I had passed on the tram several times but had not explored, so I decided to take the 18 min ride there. I walked around for about 45 min, took some photos, and took the tram back to the hotel.

Amazing Breakfast!!!

Bloemenmarkt (I assume this translates to “flower market”

I did not eat any of these baked goods. They were just so pretty

Just Amsterdam Amsterdaming

Fortunately, check-out was noon, so I just relaxed until about 11:45. I took the public transportation to the airport, which was super easy. The walk to the train station was 7 minutes, I bought a ticket, and then I was on the very comfy train. The ride was only about 10 minutes. I got to the proper terminal and through security easily, and I found my airport lounge, where I hung out for about 4 hours. I’m thinking ahead to my coming week, so I thought it best to just rest. They had a lovely lunch buffet with salads, pumpkin soup, and a couscous dish. I found a seat, had my lunch, did some things online, and took a short nap.

My new hobby is airport lounges. They’re all different, and this one was quite fancy.

I got to the gate for my KLM flight and asked if I could use the priority boarding lane since I’m always in Zone 1 with Delta. I wouldn’t care about that, but I was thinking of overhead space for my bag since I would need to get off the plane as quickly as possible. I was preparing for getting to the theatre to see Audra McDonald in “Lady Day.” The flight was delayed a few minutes. That wasn’t so bad, but then we taxied for what seemed like 30 minutes. I thought we were driving to London! Finally we took off. The flight was very brief, but they served a beverage, and sandwich, and a cookie faster than I’ve ever seen. As we were flying over England, we seemed to really slow down, and we had to circle London a bit before landing. That delayed us even more. I got off the plane very quickly, walked past everyone, and ran to border patrol. I couldn’t believe the line. It appeared that an entire Asian country had just arrived in London. I asked if there was any way to get through more quickly, and I was told that I could apply for a frequent traveler thing with the UK. I’ll think about that. I wonder if they would have helped me if I had explained my situation?? Oh well, the line moved constantly, and I was through it in a reasonable amount of time. I then started running again to Heathrow Express, which is supposed to get you to Paddington Station in central London in 15 minutes. I forgot that if you were at terminal 4, where I arrived, you had to take another train before you can get on the Heathrow Express. There was a 15 min wait for that train. It finally came and got me to the Heathrow Express that was departing at 7:03. The show was at 7:45, and I almost didn’t even get on the train since I also had to take a 20 min tube ride to Leicester Square and then walk to the theatre. I got on anyway, and we got to London at around 7:20 or later. I ran like a crazy person through Paddington Station and don’t even remember seeing the station. I had my Oyster Card (London’s subway card) in my hand and tried to enter, but didn’t have enough credit for the ride. There was a free machine, so I went to reload. My first three attempts at using my credit card didn’t work, but I finally got it to work, ran down the escalators, made it to the platform, and the train came right away. It moved pretty quickly to the station I needed, and I again ran out of the station. I wasn’t sure which exit to take, so I just chose one, which was a horrible choice. I ended up in the bottom of a souvenir shop and had to find my way out. Finally, I found my way to the exit and made sure (with my phone) that I was going in the right direction. That was not easy on the uneven, brick sidewalks of London. I had to stop and walk a few times to regroup. Also, it was pretty a pretty warm night in London, so I was really working up a sweat. Finally, I saw the theatre in sight, and I ran across traffic to get there right at 7:44. I had read that there was no late seating for people sitting on stage, so this caused more stress. Security at the door needed to inspect my bags, I had to pick up my ticket, check my bags at the cloakroom, and be escorted to my seat. The man who appeared to be the house manager was rushing me along, understandably. Finally, I was in my seat onstage, a hot, sweaty, shaking mess, and I was sitting with a lovely Canadian family. I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves, fanned myself with my ticket, and enjoyed the music that the combo was playing. I really needed some water, but there was no way to get it. The band played a few numbers before welcoming us to “the club” in Philly. Audra McDonald (Billy Holiday) came on stage, holding a drink. I have not read a synopsis (programs were £4, and I didn’t have any cash), but I believe this show happens at the end of Billy Holiday’s career when she was a heroine addict and an alcoholic, etc. I also assume that this was just supposed to be what one of her shows would have been like. She talked a lot about different things in her life. Sometimes the pianist would try to get her to sing a song. Sometimes she wouldn’t want to sing the song. As the show progressed, her condition deteriorated. She was drinking a lot, could hardly walk, would get emotional about certain stories, and at one point, she left the stage. She came back with a small dog but could hardly walk. From my vantage point, I sometimes was making eye contact with her, but sometimes I was watching her from behind. As the show ended, I was watching from behind, and I’m not quite sure what happened. She was singing a song, and the song continued, but she sort of stopped singing. I’ll have to watch the HBO special to see it all from the front. Then it was over. She bowed, I said “brava” as she walked by me, and I went to collect my bags. I told the person there that I was the crazy person who made it at the last minute. She said that she remembered me, but she had a bit of trouble finding my bags. I got them, though, and I stood outside the front of the theatre. It was much cooler, which was great, and I wondered whether she and the cast would come out to talk to the crowd. I didn’t see the stage door, so eventually I decided to walk around the theatre to see if I could find it. I made one left turn and didn’t see anything. Then I turned again, and saw it with a rather small line of people waiting! I was the last person in line, but when Audra came out, she came right to me (the last shall be first). I had met her once before about 17 years ago, so I wasn’t exactly star-struck. I told her how I had sent her a tweet to tell her that I was trying to make it from Heathrow and how I was a hot, sweaty mess after running through London to get there. She laughed at my story, thanked me for coming, and took a quick photo with me. That was certainly the icing on the cake. Of course, I desperately wanted to see her perform this role, but also I wanted to make use of the ticket that I had paid for, almost equally. She is a wonderful singer and actress, and it was inspiring to see her do this. The show was better than I expected, as I forgot that I was watching Audra McDonald on stage several times. I always say that things work out. This time I didn’t even fully believe that they would work out for me to make it on time, but that belief was certainly reaffirmed from this experience. Actually things more than worked out since I had the chance to meet Audra and take a photo!

From my seat on the stage

I figured, even if I don’t get a pic with her, I’ll have this…
Then I decided to walk around back and found this!
She’s so lovely

I eventually made my way to the tube, which was also a bit of a nightmare. It was hot in the station, and there were delays on the crowded station. Also, I had to go all the way back to the airport. I had booked a hotel room there since I would have to be at the airport at around 7 am for my 9:05 flight to JFK. I finally arrived at my hotel at around midnight, after a long train ride and a bus ride. Going to sleep wasn’t easy, and I didn’t sleep very soundly, after the drama and excitement of the evening. You only live once, though, and I would have plenty of napping opportunities on my two flights home.

My somewhat fancy, old-school hotel. The presidential suite was on my floor, but my key didn’t open it.

I woke up at around 5:15, had an instant coffee that was supplied in my room, got ready, and went to check out. I took the public transport bus to the airport, which was a quick, easy ride.

Bus to the airport

Then I found my terminal and breezed through security. TSA Pre-check definitely worked for me this time. I didn’t actually even show my passport to anyone until I got to my gate. Again, I found the airport lounge and hung out with a bit of coffee and breakfast until 8:05, when my gate was announced. I walked the rather long walk there, and I was able to walk right onto the plane. I was one of the earlier people onboard, so I had time to get myself situated in a comfortable way. We actually took off right on time, which was wonderful and boded very well for my change of flights in NYC.

At JFK, I found my airport lounge, had a snack/light lunch, and relaxed until my final flight home. While there, I made a reservation with Enterprise for a cargo van for cleaning out my house in Demorest (more on that soon). The flight to Atlanta was right on time, and I took an Uber home. The Uber driver was pretty rude but got me home quickly. I dropped my things at home and drove to Enterprise to get the cargo van before they closed at 6 pm. I then got a quick bite for dinner at Tin Drum and drove to Demorest to spend the night. When I got there, I put a few things in the van but decided to inflate the air mattress and go to bed around 9:30. I had a decent night’s sleep and got up the next morning around 6:00 to completely empty the house. I had the van returned to Enterprise in Atlanta by 11:30. Then I finally took a shower, had some lunch, and got ready for a choral gig at GA State at 1:30, which I would be doing the rest of the week. No rest for the weary!

Empty house ready for new owners!

As I’m sure you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip. I didn’t just write about the good stuff. It was almost all good stuff, and I’d happily do any of it again!

Day 12: Just look at the pretty pictures

This is the time late in my trip that I don’t feel like writing about every detail, and you might not feel like reading them either. 🙂 I’m going to post a bunch of photos and make comments when needed. It was a good, full day of squeezing in as much as possible in a sort period of time. The main thing is that I absolutely love this city and the people here, and I definitely need to return to explore more of the city and the rest of the country!

The morning. A stroll through Vondelpark and The Van Gogh Museum:


The Heineken Experience. Like Guinness in Ireland, Heineken is very important to Amsterdam. They did a lot to build the city and make it what it is today.


Lunch at a place recommended by someone at my hotel. It is a place where locals go to hang out. They don’t even have English on their menu, and I didn’t hear anyone speaking English. I loved it!!

I read that the Dutch love this thing called “gezellig.” It is sort of just hanging out in a cozy, warm place, and I think this place is very typical of that.

Friends waiting to surprise someone for a baby shower
My table
Salad with quinoa, beets, and feta. It was delicious!!

A few other things from the walk before or after lunch:

Really interesting architecture!
People boarding a river cruise. #goals

I had free admission to The Eye Film Museum. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but they happened to have a huge Martin Scorsese exhibit. Kind of odd to see that in Amsterdam, but it was very interesting. Scorsese was definitely involved in putting this together, since many of the things are just his personal belongings:

The museum is the oddly shaped building on the left
The family’s dining room table from Little Italy
Dress from The Aviator
Boxing Shorts & Gloves from “Raging Bull”
Some of Scorsese’s record collection
On the ferry from The Eye, going back to Centraal
Really famous ice cream place. It was time for a snack. Only 1 Euro for a small cone!
It was described as “unbelievably good vanilla ice cream.” It was good, but I thought it was sort of like Chic-fil-A’s Ice Dream or Dairy Queen Ice Cream.
Last stop before nap time
There are hooks at the tops of gables for hoisting things up to the top floors!
Pigeons near my hotel

I was overdue for a nap, so I returned to the hotel. I wasn’t sure where to go for dinner, but I remembered that Amsterdam has a pretty new Food Hall. Just like I am a sucker for a rooftop, I am a sucker for a food hall (Ponce City Market & Krog St Market!). My hotel friend confirmed that it would be a good place to go, so that’s what I did! After that, I decided to take a canal cruise, which was for free with my iamsterdam card. Finally, before going home for the night, I got some fries. Fries with mayo are a big thing here, so I needed to have some. I actually walked about a mile to find a place that was supposed to be the best, but they had closed at 5:00 (I was there at 10:00). Oh well…

A few more pictures from my evening:

The house boats were amazing!

Day 11: Hamburg to Amsterdam

Today I woke up around 6am and got ready to leave for my 9:45 train from the Hamburg Hauptbanhof to Amsterdam Centraal. Re-packing my suitcase is a pain because of the way I pack, but it works. Basically I pack my clothes like a burrito. They’re very compact and have minimal wrinkles. I had four water bottles to return to the grocery store, which got me 90 cents back, so I got a salad and a bottle of water for the train ride. The weather was a bit misty, so I decided to take the metro to the train station. Again, I wasn’t quite sue which platform to go to, but it wasn’t too much trouble to figure it out. The train route oddly went sort of around Hamburg with only one stop between HafenCity and Hauptbanhof, but it only took about 10 minutes. I was the only person in my car, so I sang a bit along the way. In addition to keeping my body in shape while I travel, the other thing that concerns me is my voice. It is certainly well-rested when I travel, but I need to vocalize occasionally when I am in a place where I won’t bother anyone. I was pleasantly surprised at what came out at 8:30 in the morning after a few days without singing.


There was an exit at both ends of the train platform, and neither one said where I needed to go. I just chose one, and when I got to the exit, I was outside and across the street from the train station. I’m not sure if I could have done better but at least I got a nice photo of the station. It’s a nice looking station, although it’s kind of dark. Once I got inside, it was pretty easy to figure out where to go. My train was to leave from platform 14 at 9:46, and there was another train scheduled to leave at 9:24, so I had some time to kill. I went to one of the shops in the station and bought a pre-lunch snack for the train ride.


I had bought a first class ticket, and I found out that I needed to go to the far end of the platform to be in the right place when the train arrived. There was a Spanish or Italian group next to me who asked if I spoke English, and we all confirmed that we were basically in the right place for the train to Osnabrück. We would have to change trains there for the rest of the journey to Amsterdam. When the train arrived, we boarded, and I found my compartment pretty easily. the compartment has six seats, three facing forward and three facing back, with a table in the middle. It’s very nice and comfortable. A family, who appeared to be French Canadian joined me in my compartment. I gathered this because they were speaking French that didn’t quite sound French, and they had maple leaves on their luggage tags. I wasn’t away enough to attempt conversation. I typed the previous day’s blog, had my snack, and went took a lovely nap. As we approached Osnabrück, they started to seem a bit worried that we were about to stop, but they weren’t sure if we were at the right station. The older man asked in German if I was going to the same place, so I said, “Yeah, I’m American.” We all sort of laughed and then had a nice conversation about where we were from, where we’d been, and where we were going. We finally arrived at the station and sort of walked together to the correct platform for our connecting train. We waited together until we boarded the train, and then they were in a different compartment. Since it was about noon, I had my lunch of a Greek salad, which was pretty tasty and healthy. I got a cappucino from the food car, but I still fell asleep again–not a problem. As I awoke, we were soon in the Netherlands. The conductor came on over the loudspeaker and welcomed us. The landscape and architecture changed, as well as the language of the conductor. I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually heard someone speak Dutch, but it sounds more like the Swedish chef than German, which surprised me.

Things I noticed are huge, double-decker bike racks at the train stations, canals, and lovely gardens. The landscape was also more flat, as one would expect.We arrived at Amsterdam Centraal at 3:00, and with a bit of trial & error, I figured out where to go and what to do. I tried the ticket machine for public transportation, but it wouldn’t work for me. I gave up and walked outside. Then I spotted the iamsterdam booth. The iamsterdam card is the sort of thing that gets you public transportation and entry to a bunch of museums for one price. Someone had suggested it, so I bought one for two days. I then found that the tram I needed to take to my hotel was just outside, so I went to the stop and get on. It was about a 30 minute ride to the hotel, and then a 5 minute walk. I checked in and went to my room, which was very nice, especially the strawberries and chocolates left for someone. Maybe I should have called the front desk, but I didn’t. I just hope Mr. & Mrs. May got their welcoming gift.

I had made a reservation for a place called Ron Gastrobar for dinner at 6:00. I read in more than one place that it was a great place to go. The chef has some sort of recognition by Michelin, and everything is 15 Euros or less, or something like that. It was a 20 minute walk there, and I got there right on time. Rather than explaining every detail, I will just say that the service was fantastic. The server was so friendly and guided me through each thing I ordered. I was there for 2.5 hours and had no idea that much time had passed. All of the food was interesting, creative, and delicious. The thing that really blew my mind was the dessert! This is what I had:

Pickled onions, caramelized butter with bread

Squid ceviche with passion fruit 

Halibut with curry and apple & chicory tarte tatin

Pan fried goose liver with apples, rhubarb, and Madeira 

Coconut with black pearl caviar and white chocolate foam


I had also read about the Sky Lounge near the Centraal station, so I worked my way back there for a great view of the city.

And a few more pics as I was on the way back to the hotel: The busy, touristy shopping area

some of the famous “red lights”
One of the main town squares
Canal near my hotel

Day 10: I chose chocolate over Brahms

This will be one of my less exciting days, in case you were thinking I needed a break! I woke up way too early, with the sun, and I took my time in the morning writing the previous day’s blog and getting ready for my last day in Hamburg. When I walked out of the apartment, I thought I was going to walk in the direction of the Johannes Brahms Museum. I had learned from teaching music appreciation that he grew up in Hamburg, he was not rich, he practiced piano in piano stores, and he made money at night playing in “stimulation bars,” as the textbook put it. However, there doesn’t seem to be any big celebration of Brahms in Hamburg like you see Mozart and Haydn in Vienna, for example. I am not denying the genius of Brahms, and I love his Requiem, but he is not among the composers I absolutely love. All of that is to say that as I started walking, I didn’t feel like walking the 1.5 miles to the museum. I had looked up public transportation, and there wasn’t an easy route, so what I decided to do instead was check out the Miniatur Wunderland, which seemed to be hugely promoted, and my Airbnb host also recommended it. I saw some of it on a Rick Steves show, and it looked pretty fun–like a huge model train exhibit. 
When I arrived, I was told that there was a 90 minute wait and that I could buy a ticket for later in the day if I didn’t want to wait 90 minutes. I decided that a 3:00 ticket would be good. That would at least give me time for lunch and a nap before doing it! 

I then roamed around a bit and went in a church that I had been seeing but had not gone inside. The steeple was unusual, and the exterior looked very old; however, inside was very modern. I found out that St. Katherine’s church was built in the 14th & 15th centuries and that it had severe bomb damage in 1943-44. That explained the contrast in styles.


I then decided to walk to the Chilehaus, which is a building that I kept hearing about as somewhere that I needed to go. Apparently it is a huge landmark in Hamburg and is a great example of 1920s Brick Expressionism. I didn’t know that was a thing, and if I just looked at the building, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. If you know that it is known as something special, then you look at it differently and try to appreciate it, so if you look closely, you can see that the brick work really is unusual and beautiful.


Chilehaus is just an office building with a few shops and restaurants in the bottom. What also drew me to the Chilehaus was its proximity to the Chocoversum. This is basically a chocolate museum. I had previously looked online and knew that there was an English language tour at 1:45, so since I was there, I decided to inquire. It seemed clear that you had to take a tour (90 minutes!), so I bought a ticket for that as well!

Although I really hadn’t done much, it was about time for lunch. I wanted something inexpensive and healthy. I had seen people setting up some food trucks/booths at a plaza near the apartment, so I thought I would check that out. There was a produce stand, a place with vegeterian wraps, a place with fish sandwiches, and a few others. I decided that I didn’t want any of them. I had also noticed an Asian place with a lunch special for around 9 Euros. That seemed interesting, so that’s where I went. It was actually a buffet, but the food was delicious, particularly the Tom Kha Gai. I ate a little bit too much, but at least it was mostly vegetables.


After lunch, I had an amazing 15 minute nap and awoke feeling ready to make it to my afternoon appointments. First stop was the Chocoversum. There was a group of about 20 people there, and the rush to the start of the tour felt like entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. After scanning our ticket and going through the turnstile, we were given a small waffle. This was a small, crispy waffle–sort of like a large communion wafer. The guide told us that we would use it in the next room, and when we entered the next room, we encountered a chocolate fountain that would dispense warm milk chocolate onto our waffle. It was quite delicious and a fun way to start the tour.


We then were sent into the next room, where we were told all about harvesting cocoa beans. The guide had a real cocoa bean that was split open, and she gave a spoonful of the pulp and a seed for 3 people to taste. They said that it tasted ok but nothing like chocolate. She then explained that the pulp and seeds are then fermented for a period of time and then dried. The dried beans are then roasted. The roasted beans are cracked open, and the cacao nibs are separated from the shell. We each got a roasted bean to open up and eat the nibs. I have eaten cacao nibs before, but these were much more delicious. Maybe it’s because they were freshly roasted or because it is better quality.

We then learned the different ratios of cacao to sugar and dried milk for making dark chocolate and milk chocolate. White chocolate was also mentioned, and only cocoa butter is used in white chocolate–no cacao. 


She then showed us the three different machines that are used in making chocolate. We got to taste it at every stage, which was interesting and always tasted great.


Somewhere along the way, we went in a room and created our own chocolate bar. We chose either dark or milk chocolate, and we were given a mold filled with melted chocolate. Then we were supposed to take a small paper cup (like the ketchup cups as Wendy’s) and fill it with three different ingredients. The ingredients ranged from raisins to sprinkles–about 16 different things to choose from. I chose dark chocolate with coffee beans, hazelnut brittle, and cacao nibs, with a few sprinkles. I also sprinkled a bit of cinnamon and chili powder on top.


After we finished the entire tour, we were given our bars that had been sitting the refrigerator for about 45 minutes. We had to unmold our chocolate and put it in a cellophane bag, and then we were released. The whole thing was very informative but not exactly fun, outside of learning about and tasting chocolate. The pace was a bit slow. This isn’t necessarily a complaint–more of an observation. I think we all enjoyed the tour, and I felt like I should have a diploma or certificate of completion after it!


After Chocoversum, I walked back to the Miniatur Wunderland. With my ticket, I was able to walk right in. It was very crowded, and I made my way through as quickly as possible. It was pretty fun but not my thing, and I left after about 30 minutes, when I felt that I had seen everything. Here are a few pictures:


I wanted to go back to the Elbphilharmonie to spend a bit more time on the plaza, so I walked over there, which was not a very long walk. I found the ticket machine for getting free tickets onto the plaza, and then I made my way up the escalator. This time, without the huge crowds, I was able to see the curve in the escalator. I also read that it is the world’s first curved escalator, and the entire trip takes about 2.5 minutes. I took a few pictures and walked to some places that I hadn’t seen the previous night. I also walked into the Westin Hotel lobby, which is also part of the Elbphilharmonie. On top of the concert hall is where the hotel rooms are, so the view from them must be amazing. From what I found before my trip, the cheapest rooms are about $400/night. All I could see was the lobby, and I wasn’t able to go to the top floor without having a room key. I did find the elevator down, though, and that took me to the very bottom to the exit. 


I walked over to the grocery store near the apartment, where I bought a water, a yogurt for the morning, and a small plate from the salad bar. That was my dinner since I thought I would just relax in the apartment before going to the opera.

I walked over to the opera, which is about a 20 minute walk and is just past the busy shopping part of town. The opera house is a large, impressive, but I didn’t think it was particularly beautiful inside or out. Actually, I found what I thought was my seat, until a lady came and informed me that it was my seat. I showed her my ticket, and she pointed to where I should be. It was nearby but not quite as good of a seat since the view was slightly obstructed. When I found my seat, the hall was mostly empty. The Germans were all out at the various bars/cafes in the lobby eating and drinking, etc. They all sort of came in suddenly, just before the opera was to begin. I mainly bought this ticket because I wanted to see an opera in Germany, but also the opera was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Benjamin Britten. It is one of my favorite operas. Now, I knew that I was going to be seeing it in Germany, but I didn’t know whether the singers would be native English speakers or Germans. Also, Germans I know are generally very concerned with language and speak English as well as any American. The opera begins with a children’s chorus, and I couldn’t understand a single word. This concerned me a bit, but I thought that maybe the children were local and had not been coached in English diction. Then Puck came out, and I could understand his English a bit better, but not every word. When some of the singers sang, I truly could not tell what language they were singing. This made the opera very boring and frustrating, and with the typically European lack of ventilation (warm & stuffy), I had a very difficult time staying awake. Sometime during the second scene or second act (not sure which), I woke up a bit, but I was still bored. Although the finale is my favorite part of the whole opera, I left at intermission. I could not imagine sitting through another hour being frustrated that they didn’t take greater care at singing well in English. I don’t think I’m wrong about this, but I think Americans (and other English speakers) go to great lengths to sound as native as possible when singing in other languages. I’m not sure what happened here, but they definitely needed more work on their English.


I strolled through town. It was about 10:00, so the sun was nearly set. Most businesses were closed, other than restaurants, and the buildings were becoming illuminated for the night. It was lovely. What I really wanted was a scoop of ice cream, though. I actually could not find an ice cream stand open anywhere between the opera house and the apartment. I even stopped in front of the Apple Store for wifi and googled ice cream, and I found that all of the shops were closing at 10. I made my way back to the area near the apartment, where everything was also closed, and I decided to call it a night. I had a few pieces of chocolate to satiate my slight hunger and somewhat satisfy my cravings. I did some research for Amsterdam before going to sleep, including looking at the menu for the restaurant where I have a reservation for Saturday night. It is a Michelin rated restaurant where everything is €15 or less, so before I left home, I decided that I needed to try it. We’ll see what tomorrow holds…..

Day 9: Hamburg & Elbphilharmonie Ticket!

The view directly off my balcony.

When the sun rises around 5 am, it’s hard for me to sleep much longer. When it sets around 10 pm, it’s hard to go to bed around that time. I guess if I lived here, I would have really good blackout curtains! I went up to the buffet to get some of the muesli and fruit for breakfast again and took it to my room to eat leisurely and enjoy the room as long as possible. I did a short run on the treadmill  in the gym also, and got myself ready to meet Otto on deck 7 for priority disembarkation. When I was there around 9:15, he was there directing a small group of people to the exit. The priority part of this was the fact that we had a shorter distance to walk, and he shook our hands as he said goodbye to us. It was a nice touch, and it might be hard to go back to being a normal second class citizen on my next cruise!

There was a very short line for stamping passports, and then I was in Hamburg! Our port was by a fish market, which also had a number of shops and restaurants. Fortunately, although nothing was open, I was able to go in the market area and get some wifi to update my map and get directions to my Airbnb. It was about 2.5 mi away, and I had 2 hours to kill until I could get into the apartment where I was staying in the Hafen-City part of town. This walk basically took me from one end of town to the other, along the Elb River. Here are a few of the sights along the way:

My first view of the Elbphilharmonie
Alexa, play that song with the words “boy come back soon”
Fancy hotel up on a hill
The Finnish Church
The Norwegian Church, next door to the Finnish one…

HafenCity, where I was staying is sort of the place to be right now. I’d say it’s like living along the Beltline in Atlanta. It is a redevelopment of an old industrial part of town. http://www.hafencity.com/en/overview/the-hafencity-project.html

As I approached HafenCity, it looked like I expected. Since it is a revitalization of old warehouses on the water, it’s kind of like a newer version of Venice. The buildings are right on the water and connected by a bunch of bridges. When I got very close to the Airbnb, I still had about 30 minutes to kill, so I wandered into a grocery store. I always love a grocery store in another country! I just needed a liter of water, but here are some other fun things I saw:

I just translated this, and “Katzenzungen” means cat tongues?!?!

Yvi, my Airbnb host, left very detailed instructions for how to let the key to her apartment. She left a lockbox on her Volkswagen, which was parked right outside her building. I got it very easily and made my way inside, and I believe I passed the previous guests as they were exiting the building. Perfect timing! As I rested a bit and posted one of my blog posts, it got very dark outside and began to pour. Fortunately, I noticed that Yvi had left an umbrella with a note saying that you’re welcome to use it, and if you want to keep it, you can leave 10 Euros. The rain seemed to be a passing thunderstorm, so I took the umbrella and went out for lunch. When in Deutschland, you go to a Biergarten, right? There was one nearby with good ratings, so I walked in that direction.

Walking with the umbrella
 

When I arrived at around 12:15, I was the only person in there, but a very nice lady helped me it out. It was good that I was the first customer, because what to do was a bit confusing. First, she offered me either kleines oder grosses bierchen, and I chose kleines (small). I then looked at the menu, and she explained that I needed to go to the counter with her to choose what I wanted. Certain items would be weighed (meat), and others were served by the serving size (vegetables). I was really trying to have a light lunch, and I think I did the best I could in this location. The things I didn’t have include, meatloaf, pork belly, and roast pork. 

This really is small…probably about 6 oz
Sausage with curry sauce
Sauerkraut, which had to be ordered from the kitchen. It’s warm

By the time I left, quite a few more people were there, and the poor server was the only person working. She was pretty stressed trying to fill orders and take care of new people who were coming in. To add to the stress, they didn’t accept credit cards under a certain amount, and my lunch was way under that amount (around 9 Euros). Since I didn’t have any cash yet, she took my card.

I then decided to venture into the historic part of town and possibly do a walk that was suggested by the Google Trips app. Like TripAdvisor, you can download the information for a city ahead of time and then use it without internet connection.The walk suggested starting at the Hamburger Kunsthalle (art museum), so I walked through town to get there. Along the way, I stopped in a church and at the Rathaus (city hall, I think), which is a beautiful building and sort of sits on the main town square.

Inside the Rathaus.

I eventually made it to the Kunsthalle, which was an enormous building, but I forgot to take a picture of it. I did take a picture of some beautiful roses growing on it, though. I also took a picture of the main train station (Hauptbanhof). 

Here are a few things inside the museum:

The pipe is attached to a gutter, so rain water slowly drips to form a stalagmite. They plan to have this installation for exactly 500 years–from 1996-2496!

It was about 4:00, and I wanted to go back to the apartment since it was now my actual check-in time. I walked back by that church and took a picture of the door, a model of the church, and a painting that I loved in an art gallery:

I took a quick nap and did some research on what to do for dinner. I seriously wanted a light dinner and didn’t want to spend much. money. I had noticed a placed called Dean & David Fresh To Eat, so that is where I decided to go. It’s a place that I assume is a chain but serves salads, soups, sandwiches, etc. I ordered a shrimp & mango salad and sat in the window to eat it. As I was sitting there, it began to pour again. Fortunately, I found some wifi, and I. looked up what concerts were happening at the Elbphilharmonie. I noticed that they were doing something called “Konzerte für Hamburg” at 7:30 and 8:30. I decided that I would try and get a ticket for the second concert. The rain stopped, and I figured ou that I could get to the hall in about 18 minutes by public transportation. I had to figure out a new system, in another language, quickly, but I did it. First, I went to the wrong platform and missed one train, but I corrected that easily and got on the right train. It was very clean, and the ride was very smooth. As we approached the hall, I could tell that other people on the train were also going there. There was a steady stream of people coming from the hall, so I made my way upstream to the hall. I found the box office and saw a short line. Although no one was speaking English, I figured out that it was a line for people hoping to get tickets for (all concerts are sold out for a long time). We were told that we had to wait about 20 minutes, and right at 8:00 the agent started selling tickets to lucky customers. When she sold a ticket to the person just before me, she said “es tut mir leid…” meaning that she was sorry but that was the last ticket. At that exact moment, a young guy in a suit showed up with a ticket in his hand and said that he was giving away a ticket. This had happened once before, and I missed that opportunity since I didn’t immediately understand the German. This time, I didn’t waste any time, and I took it!! I couldn’t believe it! He gave me the ticket for free. These concerts were not very expensive to begin with, as the highest price was 18 Euros, but it was still like being given the golden ticket!

Everyone scans their tickets to go through a turnstile and access the escalator. The escalator itself was an experience. Not only was it beautiful, but it was a very long ride, and it didn’t go straight up. I don’t know how to describe it, but there was a curve in it, as if it was going over a hill. This might be the best selfie/photobomb ever:

Once at the top, you had to show your ticket again and were directed to the correct entrance. I was asked whether I wanted to take stairs or elevator, and I said I would take the stairs. There were about a million of them, which I didn’t realize. Oh well, I needed to walk off those potatoes! I finally got to my seat, which was the most comfortable concert seat I had ever sat in, by the way. The hall is so large but so intimate. I felt like I had the best seat in the house, and I could really feel that the architecture had a very comforting affect. Although I had been a bit stressed about getting a ticket, then excited about getting one, then rushed up a million stairs to my seat, I was quickly relaxed. 


The orchestra came out, tuned, and the concert began. The first piece was a trumpet concerto by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (new to me). The title was “Nobody knows de trouble I see..” I must admit that I am rarely excited about orchestral music, but this piece was amazing. It engaged me from the beginning. It had elements of jazz and had moments that were very dissonant and disjunct. The soloist was fantastic too. The piece was about 15 minutes long, then the conductor came back out and made a brief explanation of “PIctures at an Exhibition,” which was the other piece to be played. Again, wasn’t too excited about hearing it. I’ve heard it before. I like the music but never found it to be all that satisfying. Well….in this hall, with this orchestra, conductor, and audience, it was a different experience. Other than the fact that every orchestra member was clearly engaged fully, and the conductor was conducting beautifully, giving and taking control (never too showy), one thing that really stood out to me was the dynamics. The soft moments were so soft and beautiful, and the loud moments were very rich and full but never overpowering. The end of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the final movement, was so powerful. It gave me big chills, which rarely happens anymore. I was not alone. The entire audience loved it. There was not a cheap standing ovation like we see at home, but there was very enthusiastic applause for a long time, and it kept going until it was clear that there would be an encore. I think the conductor said that it had to be short so that we could get out of the hall, but they were going to play something from “Lohengrin.” It was also fantastic, and then it was over. To make it even better, this programming was fantastic. There was a familiar crowd-pleaser with “Pictures at an Exhibition” and something unfamiliar and a bit more challenging with the trumpet concerto. Also it was only an hour long, which is my type of concert. Leave the people wanting more–not wishing it would end!

There were many people taking photos and even discreetly taking video, so I made a short video of the end of “Great Gate of Kiev.”​

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​Here are a few more photos as I was leaving. The sunset was AMAZING!!


My plan was to find an ice cream and call it a night. However, there was a restaurant and brewery in the hall. I decided to look in, and I noticed that people were having flights of beer, so I thought I would try one. The server was pretty slow coming, so I asked the people next to me (communal table) how it worked. They then helped get the attention of the server, and I ordered my tasting. Every one was really quite nice. I also had a very nice conversation with the man next to me as well as his daughter’s boyfriend, who was visiting from Munich. A nice lady also sat next to me, along with her husband and another friend. We also had a nice conversation, but they left pretty soon. After we had all paid, the guys next to me asked if I’d like to walk around the building again. Mark, the older man, gave me his card and said that I should get in touch so that the next time in German we can meet again. My impression is that Germans are very friendly but keep their distance, so I feel that it is an honor to have made friends with these people. My apartment was a pretty short walk from where we parted ways, and when I got home, I had a nice conversation with Yvi, who I learned had just done a big road trip from Washington, DC to Miami, including Savannah & Charleston. She said that her favorite place was Siesta Key in Florida, which I have never heard of. Another place to add to the the list! I finally went to bed at around 12:30!

Day 8: Sea Day!

Again, I slept pretty well, although I woke up a few times. This time, though, I slept until 7:30, which was 8:30 since we crossed a time zone! I had placed a room service card for breakfast on my door the previous night, and it was supposed to arrive between 6:30 & 7:00. I suspected that something had gone wrong earlier, because it was gone about 2 minutes after I put it there. As I was leaving to get breakfast at the buffet, I noticed that it had somehow fallen into a cubby by my door. Oh well, I think I actually made better choices at the buffet. I had an odd assortment of granola, muesli, yogurt, and fruit. I took it back to my room, along with a small pack of Nutella. This, along with coffee from my Nespresso machine and an apple, made for a lovely breakfast on my sofa. I then did my typical, full yoga routine, which my body thanked me for. It was nice to have time time and space to do it, accompanied by piano tunes on one of the tv channels, which featured such favorites as the theme from “Ice Castles.”
I thought it was kind of cold outside, so I finally ventured out to my balcony, where I discovered that the temperature was pretty nice. Over to the left, I saw a ship, along with what looked like some windmills, in the distance. 


It was time for the hot tub. I’m not normally a huge fan, but with the cooler weather, it sounded perfect. It was quite nice, and the pool deck was beginning to fill up with people fully dressed and sun bathing. After I got out of the hot tub and sat in a chair, I was a bit cold, so I decided to go play $10 budget bingo, which was scheduled for 11:00. Of course, they tried to sell me the $30 package with more cards, but I stuck with $10. At 11, they announced that the game was canceled because there weren’t enough people there. They were giving everyone more cards, though, and we could play at the 4:00 game, which would have a larger jackpot. 


Oh well. I took my cards to my room and discovered that there would be a bouillabaisse demonstration in the atrium at 11:30. Bouillabaisse, shower, lunch, more hot tub/sun, sounded like a good itinerary for the near future. 


I wasn’t sure which place to try for lunch, but I thought I’d try the same place as yesterday since I liked the server. Unfortunately, they had the exact same menu, so I decided to try the main dining room. I wasn’t too excited about their entrees, so I ordered two salads: the crab salad and the arugula and shrimp salad. 


My thinking was that I would then check the systems and see if I’d like to have a main course in another restaurant. I got the NY Strip with Parmesan truffle fries on my mind that I had seen on the menu at Cagney’s, so that’s what I did. It was great, but I only ate half of it. 


Just a side note about the music that was playing. It was lovely and non-intrusive, but I really have a problem with instrumental arrangements of vocal music, unless it’s something like a Liszt arrangement of a Schumann song. They were playing a piano version of “Tell me on a Sunday” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was probably the only person who noticed, but I did. It didn’t actually bother me so much, but if I put on Pandora and ask for classical piano music, that is not what I want. Just give me some Chopin!

After Cagney’s I went up to the buffet/pool deck to check out desserts. I found a small serving of apple strudel and had it with a small bit of vanilla ice cream and warm caramel sauce. Yum. I then returned to my room and had a 10 minute nap on my left side in the sun on the balcony. Now, that, followed by an espresso, was heavenly. 


Post-nap, sun and hot tub seemed appropriate. The breeze on the pool deck was stronger and colder than on my balcony, but as I stayed in the sun, I got warmer. I stayed in the sun for about 30 minutes and then got in the hot tub, which was great after the dry, chilly wind. It was so relaxing. I roamed the ship a bit and went back to my room, where I found a lovely cheese plate waiting for me. 


Too bad they didn’t include a glass of wine with that! Well, I went out and found my own. I brought it back to the room and had some of it and some of the cheese on my balcony. It was so nice, I stayed for a bit more time in the sun, which sort of doubled as another nap. Yes! 

It was then time for the 4:00 bingo game, which I found out was also canceled. However, this time, they were going to refund the cost of the cards and play one game for a prize. That was about 20 minutes of unbridled fun until someone won! 😜

I went back to the room, showered again, and slowly made my way to dinner by about 5:30. I went to Alizar, which is the other main dining room on the ship. It is smaller, and it is also the one where you can wear shorts instead having to wear pants. Interestingly, I had a better experience in Alizar. In the past, I’ve had better experiences in the dining room that was more formal. Oh well! The server and other staff were friendlier, and the meal was generally paced better. Everything was very good, from the spring roll and papaya salad, the butternut squash soup (odd combination, I know), and the seafood hot pot entree. 


Just to clarify, I generally think cruise ship is good, but would not say it is anything to write home about. I’m sure that will change for me if/when I’m able to go on a fancier cruise line. 

One of the bad singers. 👎🏼
 
I went from the bad singer to this show, which was quite fun and woke me up!
And that’s how the day ended. By the way, this was taken at 10:10 pm!

Day 7: Red Funnel to Southampton & NCL Jade

After taking the allergy medicine, I slept ok. I woke several times during the night from the heat, but at least I was groggy enough to go back to sleep until 6:30. I fixed a cup of instant coffee that was provided in the room, and at 7:00, I went down to breakfast, which I had been told was “downstairs in the conservatory.” It was so beautifully set up with tables and tablecloths, and I was told that they’re only able to put the tables outside a few times a year. I got a bit of granola, yogurt, and berries and sat at a table outside. There was a menu of other things that I should order after the “first course.” I chose the smoked salmon and eggs. I also took the toast that she offered because of the lovely jams on the table. It was all perfect. However, I regretted eating the toast. I suppose I needed that confirmation that my belly still isn’t accepting bread.I went back to my room, had a brief snooze, showered, and packed. Paula met me as I was leaving and reminded me that I needed to pay. She also offered me a ride to the ferry, and we had a lovely chat. That was so much nicer than walking and lugging bags after yesterday’s sweaty experience. 

I purchased a ferry ticket and boarded quickly. This time, it was the express ferry from West Cowes that moves faster and is only for foot passengers. It really was a much faster ride. I saw the Norwegian Jade as we arrived at port. I arrived in Southampton with time to kill, so I took a quick stroll through the historic part of town. I’m glad I did it, because the history is quite interesting. Not only did the Titanic leave from Southampton, but so did the Mayflower!! There are also remains there from medieval times. 


After my history lesson, I went over to the cruise port, where the Norwegian Jade was docked. The information online said that boarding would begin at noon but that you could arrive to check in as early as 11:00. I arrived around that time, and there was a brief wait before those of us who were embarking were allowed to check in. I’ve gathered enough points with NCL now that I am at their silver level, meaning that I get to go to a special line to check in. What I didn’t know was that everything would be priority treatment this time. After I my passport and credit card were checked, I was escorted over to the priority seating area, where I met the concierge. I was the first one there, so we chatted a bit. For some reason our boarding cards had to be reprinted, so as soon as they were delivered, we were able to board. I was on board and in my room before noon. What I haven’t mentioned is that prior to the cruise, I had been upgraded at least twice. I went from the cheapest interior cabin to a penthouse suite because the prices kept dropping. It only cost me $15 extra!​

​I checked out everything in the room, including a letter from the concierge, which explained how to get in touch with him, the butler, and the stateroom steward. It also mentioned that I could have lunch in Cagney’s Steakhouse, which isn’t usually open for lunch. I decided to try that for my lunch, instead of the buffet. I walked down there, got a seat near a window, and ordered a shrimp cocktail and risotto with scallops and shrimp. They were both quite nice, perhaps an upgrade from what I had experienced on previous cruises. I decided that I needed a vegetable, so I ordered the green salad from the menu before ordering dessert, which was a macadamia nut ice cream with a nut brittle. Delicious!

After a bit of exploring the ship, I returned to my suite to put on my gym shorts, since I had either forgotten my bathing suit or wasn’t expecting it to be hot enough to be by the pool. While I was in the room, the doorbell rang, and someone brought a flower arrangement and a basket of fruit. So nice! I then quickly went up to the pool, but without sunscreen, I decided I should only stay about an hour. The sun was intense and felt much like an average day by the pool in Georgia. The pool water was nice too, and it was very salty. I noticed that I was more buoyant than usual! I had some time to kill, so I went to the gym for a brief run, a few weights, and some yoga poses. I noticed this sign. Doesn’t “transcend” have a “c” in it?? I might need to send Norwegian an e-mail…and maybe ask for a free spa treatment.

I went back to the pool for a few minutes and then went to my room to shower and get ready for the evening. When I returned, I found chocolate covered strawberries! 🙂 The suite life! I eventually made it to dinner in the main dining room, where I ordered prosciutto with melon (thank you, Italy), the roasted vegetable salad with goat cheese, roasted monkfish (forgot to take a picture), and the hazelnut creme brûlée (didn’t eat it all, I promise!). It was a great dinner! Honestly, I didn’t finish the creme brûlée because I had a secret plan of checking out the buffet desserts. I wasn’t impressed by anything until I saw the crepe station. I couldn’t resist, so I ordered a crepe with Nutella and bananas. It was so good and so worth any calories and discomfort!

I checked out two different shows. The first was a broadway cabaret in the theatre. I didn’t really like it from the beginning, but I gave it a few songs before I decided to leave. The selections were just not great–sort of long, slow, and boring. Also, the female singers were singing flat belting in a way that was not good. Ugh, I wanted to help them with their technique and their song choices! I then went up to the Spinnaker Lounge, where they were having a party with live music. This lounge has a great view of the outside, so I admired the view as I waited for the music to begin. It started, and soon after, I realized that this girl also was not singing well. I can listen to a certain amount of bad singing, but I don’t find it enjoyable unless they make up for it somehow. That sealed the deal, and I decided to go sit on my own balcony. I sat on my chaise and watched as we passed between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. At some point, another boat started following us for quite a while. I think they were just having fun in the wake of our ship. I finally decided to retire for the evening. I turned on the television for a few minutes and saw the news of District 6 election on BBC News. They were in Atlanta, and here I was on a cruise ship approaching the North Sea!


Maybe I should look into a job as a cruise ship voice teacher and/or music director. Maybe that’s a thing?

Day 5: Church, haircut, lunch, and more church

Considering how exhausted I was all day on Saturday after arriving in London, I slept through the night until 6:30. That’s early for most people, but it’s pretty normal for me. I finished yesterday’s blog, had some breakfast, and left the house when only the children were awake. I was running a bit late for the 10:15 Choral Matins (or Mattins?) service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I arrived at St. Paul’s tube station at about 10:13 and saw a couple, who looked like tourists, running for the cathedral. I figured they were going to the service as well, and they were. The trouble with these huge cathedrals is knowing where to enter. It takes a while to get from one end to the other. After getting through the security line, I made it in by about 10:20. They were chanting the Lord’s Prayer; I hadn’t missed much.


I had been to St. Paul’s once before for an Evensong service, but visiting choirs were singing. I recently told someone this, and they told me that I really needed to go when their choir was singing. That was today, and it really is a glorious sound. The men’s tenor and bass voices are strong and full, and the boys’ soprano and alto voices soar freely. There was a brief sermon, and it actually was quite nice. The topic was sin, and it was based on the scripture that says something to the effect of “If you say you have no sin, you’re crazy, but there’s hope if you repent.” The preacher mentioned the word “martier.” I am not sure of the spelling and have not looked it up yet. Basically, it means missing the mark. A couple of quotes that I took from the sermon: “We are human, and we have to strive to hit the mark. Practice makes perfect.” Also, “I know who you really are, I know the struggles you have, and I know your potential.” I left the service feeling refreshed and relaxed.

A selfie from my lap since photography isn’t allowed

It was about 11:30, and my next plan was lunch, of course. I was looking for a traditional Sunday roast, and I was near 1 New Change, a large shopping center near St. Paul’s. Jamie Oliver’s Barbacoa is in there, but that seemed a bit extravagant. I was looking for a pub. A haircut was also something that had been on my mind, and then I stumbled upon “Ted’s Grooming Room.” I was looking through the window at the rates that were posted. It seemed pretty reasonable, so I walked in and asked for more explanation. The man explained that the price included two washes (before & after), a hot towel, massage, and beverages. Sounded good. Soon after, I realized that Ted is Ted Baker, so I figured that if a major designer is going to put his name on a business, it had better be good. The Turkish coffee that I ordered came in an ornate Ted Baker cup, and the sparkling water was in a bottle that I had never seen.


From the very beginning, this was not a normal haircut. He wrapped a white stretchy thing (sort of like an ace bandage) around my neck, then fastened the cape around my neck, and folded the “bandage” down over the neck part of the cape. The sink for washing the hair was in front of me, but instead of leaning me back into the sink, I was instructed to lean forward into the sink. This was new for me, but it still felt great to have my head shampooed. He used clippers to cut the sides short as I requested and asked me to approve of the length. It looked good, so he continued. He then used scissors to work on the top and to blend the lengths. This all was pretty quick. He checked the sideburns, trimmed my eyebrows, and then something happened that blew my mind. A wire with a small sponge-like ball on the end was sitting down in a bottle of some liquid. He lit it on fire and then started waving it around my right ear. He would touch the ear lightly and pull it away. I could smell the hair burning. He then did this to my left ear, of course. I believe the whole purpose of this was to burn off the fuzzy hairs from all around the ear. I had never seen or heard of this and never knew that getting rid of those hairs would be part of being well groomed. After this came the hot towel, which a girl delivered steaming in a bucket. He waved it around to cool it to a bearable temperature and then wrapped it all around my face. I have had hot towels before, but this one was infused with eucalyptus, which was so refreshing and felt great as I inhaled the steam into my somewhat irritated sinuses (everyone in London is sniffling from allergies). He then shampooed me again to rinse off any stray hairs, did a final check and a few more snips, and styled my hair in a way that I loved. I paid and left, feeling even more refreshed and energized!

Now it was really beginning to be time for lunch. I was near two places that interested me. One is The Ned, where I went with Shehzad on my previous trip. The other was Coq d’Argent, which Shehzad told me about. They were basically across the street from each other. I looked at the menu for Coq d’Argent and decided that I might come back later since it is a rooftop restaurant (I’m a sucker for a a rooftop!). I then walked over to The Ned and saw the most amazingly beautiful buffet. I know that I would have enjoyed it thoroughly, but that is the problem. I really didn’t want to stuff myself and be miserable. I decided to leave and see what else I could find. I walked a bit farther and found a pub that looked promising. I walked upstairs to the restaurant section and asked the girl behind the bar whether I should order with her and then find a table. She was rude and gave the impression that I was bothering her and curtly said, “You find a table, and I will come to you.” I started walking. She was following me to a table, unaware that I was actually walking out. That was not the sort of service that I was willing to deal with on any day, much less this day that was going so well.

I saw on the map on my phone that a restaurant was nearby and around the corner, but I couldn’t see what it was since I didn’t have an internet connection. As I turned the corner, I saw the word “Ottolenghi” above the restaurant. I have heard several interviews with Yotam Ottolenghi who is known to be somewhat of a genius with vegetables. His food isn’t vegeterian, but it is largely plant-based. His two famous cookbooks are “Jerusalem” and “Plenty.” On my previous trip, I had meant to look for this place but had forgotten. I looked at the menu, which was a bit confusing, and I went inside and was seated at one of the few vacant seats at the bar. The menu was still a bit confusing, but the very friendly server explained it to me and made some recommendations. Basically, you choose one main course and then anywhere from two to four “salads.” I decided to go with her recommendations of the tuna and the sweet potatoes, and I chose the cauliflower and the broccoli. All of the food was out for customers to peruse for decision making, and someone was there working to fill orders as they were placed. The food was arranged so beautifully on the plate and looked delicious. The tuna and the sauce were very good. The sweeet potatoes with sort of a guacamole was unusual but excellent, and my favorite was the curry roasted cauliflower with yogurt. It was wonderful. It was a lot of food, but I felt good about eating it. Then, I was asked if I wanted dessert. I had not seen earlier that they were sitting out. Wow, they were so beautiful. I felt that my choice of the apple and sultana (raisin) galette was one of the healthier options, so I got it and a double espresso. 


Front of my plate
The other side

Feeling quite stuffed, I left, and it was almost time for Evensong at Westminster Abbey. I had to get on the tube to Westminster, which was about a 20 minute ride across London. I arrived just in time for the service, with a few minutes to spare, Again, I had to cross several intersections and walk from one end of the church to the other. St. Paul’s is beautiful, but I somehow prefer Westminster Abbey inside and out. What blows my mind every time is the markers of different important people on the walls and in the floor. I should know this, but I am not sure whether those people are actually buried there. Then, you get to the section where the composers’ names are: Edward Elgar, BENJAMIN BRITTEN, etc. It so frustrating because you can’t take pictures, and you can’t even really stop to admire. I have tried taking pictures before and have been scolded, so I didn’t even want to deal with that this time.


I came to this service mainly because I saw online that they would be singing “Lo, the full, final sacrifice” by Finzi, which I had sung recently in Atlanta. It is a mammoth anthem that is quite difficult and lasts at least 10 minutes. I knew that I needed to hear it, and obviously the choir wasn’t “phoning it in” today if they were doing that. All of the music was beautiful, and I can’t say whether Westminster or St. Paul’s is better. I hope the other people in the congregation appreciated what they were hearing when the Finzi happened. The sermon was quite somber, as the topic was about the recent tragedies in London. I didn’t find it to be particular helpful or comforting, and his main suggestion was to have a day of appreciation for emergency responders. That’s nice, but it doesn’t exactly bring peace on earth.

After Evensong, I wont on a pretty long walk to get to the Central line to take the tube home, rather than taking a closer one and having to make a transfer. This took me through Trafalgar Square, Soho, the West End, and near Oxford Circus. I arrived back at Shehzad’s and found out that Pakistan had beat India in the Internationl Cricket Championship, which was a huge deal for them. That’s like the Falcons winning the Super Bowl or the Braves winning the World Series. I was pretty tired, so I just rested on the back steps as the others played a bit of cricket in the back yard. We went to The Duke, only to find out that they were no longer serving food, so we returned home for something simple at home. I went to bed very soon after, exhausted from a full day, and in preparation for a new journey the next morning.