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Sunday, August 9, 2009, at sea along the southwestern coast of Sweden

Hi all. We’re sailing right now, in Scandinavia – where we have Internet access, even when we’re at sea, if we don’t stray too far from the coast. We’ve had a week of intense sailing, but it’s been fabulous, even by my standards: speedy sailing, warm weather, and lovely flat seas, even in the wind. Last week, we were in Kołobrzeg, Poland.

We remained in Kołobrzeg for a lazy Sunday, and took the opportunity to walk to the beach. Poland’s coast in general seems to have a lot of undeveloped space, and this town has done a good job of covering quite a bit of it with parks. Alongside the beach, a wide ribbon of parkside allows pedestrians to stroll in the sea air without the blaze of the seaside sun. We opted to see the sand and the ocean anyway.

The yacht harbor is on an island, and we always had two choices for crossing the small channel to get to town. One was a road, and the other a military pontoon bridge. This time, we took the military bridge.

You might wonder why there’s a military bridge in this likely permanent location. We certainly did. A military pontoon bridge is the sort of thing you’d lay down when you’re at war and someone has just bombed the actual bridge somewhere to shreds and you need to get to the other side. This bridge is pieced together like Lego parts and looks pretty substantial for something that normally is only temporarily needed. Then again, I’d want something serious to drive over in my tank. But that wasn’t the aspect that intrigued Art. He was wondering why there was military equipment in use in a non-military situation. And when we got there, sure enough, there was a soldier guarding it. It was comforting to know that we weren’t going to be invaded by Speedo-clad tourists.

The beach, and a rather long one at that, was very crowded. Apparently the beach had been taken over by a temporary corporate sponsor – Kia automobiles – to promote its kite-surfing championship and, of course, itself. I thought that what they did with the beach was terrific: tents for one purpose or another, an obstacle course set up for people to toss balls, jog around a slalom, and try to knock over one of the, well, babes who were announcing the event. There was a sort of wading pool carved out of the sand, and kids were skidding on it with the sand version of a snowboard. There was a curved wall for skateboarders to swerve up and back. The promenade along the beach was lined with vendors. And you couldn’t run out of ice cream and waffles; by the time you finished one, you’d have walked to another purveyor.

On our last day in town, it poured all morning, and then stayed cloudy for most of the day, so the puddles barely had time to dry. Undaunted, we visited what had become our favorite lunch place. We’d gone because of a Lonely Planet recommendation, and stayed because it just always seemed right. Crowded every day, it was just a family luncheonette where English-speaking patrons were a rarity. The menu had a variety of items, and none was ever different from any other mid-range place in Poland. We’d look up the name of a dish in our book about food. It always translated to something pork or chicken, breaded and fried. We should have just stopped bothering. The dish would come with fries or boiled potatoes and “salad”, which was always a choice between several versions of cole slaw and several versions of shredded beets. Soup was presented in a large bowl, always overflowing the sides. Since there was a counter for pickup, anyone who had ordered soup had to transport it, in some sort of balancing gymnastics, to their table. Only the women who appeared to be mothers seemed to carry off this trick with any kind of ease. We always sat near the counter, soup or no soup, because of the routine we had with the young woman who’d take our order.

We’d point to something on the menu. Then we’d mime the sides and water orders with pointed fingers and badly pronounced names. We’d pay. She’d state our order number in separated syllables, as if talking to a small child: “tshy--di--yesh--chee--chteh--ry” and we’d repeat it to ourselves the whole way back to the table. Then one of us would say something and we’d both forget our number. But then she’d call out our number and look at us and smile, and we’d go up and pick up our lunch. Somehow this all became familiar and comforting. By the last day, we finally got smart enough to order the day’s special.

Indeed, I should mention that more Poles than I expected spoke English at a pretty fluent level. Two men at our marina spoke it so well we didn’t need to manage our communications a bit by talking more slowly or selecting our words carefully. The family of one of them came from the south of Poland. Art’s family came from the south of Poland. This guy had relatives in New Jersey. Art told him about his brother in New Jersey. The young women serving tables at the downtown restaurants spoke English well. But those who spoke no English were so friendly to us that it almost didn’t matter. They’d chatter, or speak German, or mime, just like we do. Once, I was on a sparsely-populated bus on a sunny day, looked outside, and sneezed. The bus driver shouted back “Nastrovia!” (Yes, just like the Russian drinking toast.)

Someone at the marina suggested a day’s outing for us, and we did it on our final day in town. Just beyond the city limits, on what was and might still be military property, is a sort of tiny theme park. There are two large tents. One is essentially an army-navy store, although only the army part, and with fewer camping accessories and tropical Panama hats and many more spent shells and helmets that look as though they were worn by Major Strasser’s driver in Casablanca. The other tent served coffee and what looked to me like army food, spoiled as I am by my luncheonette. Somewhere in those tents, people were getting their faces painted in camouflage. But the main attractions were the rides.

One was a tank. Yes, for about ten dollars a pop, you and your family can be driven around in an old Soviet tank or for a little less, be driven in a troop transporter. I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie Life is Beautiful, in which Roberto Benigni (the only moviemaker besides Mel Brooks who can make Nazis seem funny) convinces his son that he’ll win a ride in a tank if he’s the best competitor in summer camp (well, concentration summer camp.) So here they were, ten-year-old kids and their parents, all waiting in line to drive around a muddy field in a tank. We couldn’t wait for our turn.

Well, literally, we couldn’t wait. When we asked to buy a ticket, we learned that the wait was two and a half hours. We’d already devoted all the time we could stand to shopping in the tent. That amounted to about three minutes. So we checked out the military transporter. The wait for that was twenty minutes. We got our tickets.

Twenty minutes became an hour and a half – something about a necessary repair to the vehicle. But we finally got our turn. We wore leather helmets for absolutely no reason other than to act out the fantasy. Art’s helmet had an electrical plug dangling from it. Mine had the number 1 stenciled on it; Art was number 9. We’d picked the perfect day for a pretend war. The mud had oozed under our shoes and dripped from the vehicle. Art got on first and helped me scramble into the transporter, which was a lot higher than I expected, and was much muddier than I wanted to touch with too many body parts. The idea was to stand and hold on to anything you could find. We grabbed space at the front of the midsection. There was only the body of the transporter to hold, and I could hang onto some pipe that was welded onto the top of it. The smell of diesel permeated the air. And we were off.

They drove us through a field that was probably once the training course for these very machines. Up and down, over deep mud and deeper puddles, we held on for dear life. We went around a field and back. I giggled when the driver pretended that we were stuck. Then I realized that he wasn’t pretending. Then we backed up and rammed back up a muddy incline, making it through. Then later, we got stuck again, still not pretending. This time, our driver backed up a lot and rammed forward. No dice. Then he backed up even more…and went a different direction to take us back to the tents. It was exhilarating, but everything about the day – the mud, the discomfort, and the elements – made me realize that I’m not cut out for Army life, and how grateful I am that other people are. Whoever you are, thank you all.

I also realized why there isn’t something like this anywhere in the US. The first time a personal injury lawyer stepped aboard one of these things, that would be the end of it. It’s a real transporter. No seat belts. No seats. It would be so easy to break a tooth or something more necessary if you banged against something or someone during a surprise bump. And the experience wouldn’t be the same if you made the tank completely inflatable. What you need is the 3D movie tank, and I think that they already have that. But we were glad that we could do it this way, once.

We’d again picked a day with very light winds to leave. The prevailing winds in this area of the Baltic were from the west, which meant that the likely sail would be to windward. That implied heeling over and big seas (and me in fetal position on a berth somewhere) if the day’s winds were too strong. In deference to my limitations, Art liked to sail on days with light winds, even though we’d always expect that we’d have to motor, instead of sail. At least this meant that our departure would be easier. You always want calm winds when your exit plans include squeezing yourself out from a bunch of boats like squirting a watermelon seed from between your fingers.

We motored out of the harbor, just enough time for me to put away lines and fenders with ease. Then Art put out the sails. Yes, it wasn’t a thundering voyage like we’d enjoyed coming into town. But by mid-day, the wind was about nine or ten knots. On a close reach, our speed through the water was about two knots less than that, a very respectable if not frenetic pace.

It wasn’t all that long a trip, and we arrived in Świnoujście in late afternoon. A cluster of swans was trespassing in the harbor entrance, and we dodged a freighter and a ferry on the way inside. Świnoujście is a very large port, the gateway to Szczecin about forty miles down the river. Szczecin is a large and important place, even though it sounds like a kazoo song.

The marina was newer than anyplace we’d been in Poland, and still being improved. Like Kołobrzeg, the marina offered free Internet access. Unlike Kołobrzeg, the shower block was a permanent structure, not a trailer. Town was about a kilometer away, and we decided to hold off on exploring until our full day in port.

The town was similar in architecture to Kołobrzeg, with reconstructed three-story merchant houses and aged concrete apartment blocks. There weren’t nearly as many beachgoers in this town, and the central square seemed empty without a town hall or cozy umbrella-clad restaurant tables. We found a down-home place for lunch, spent as much of our remaining currency as we could in the supermarket, and exchanged the rest for euros.

After a bit of dockside coordination with rafted boats, we left a bit later than our normal early-morning departure. This didn’t matter much; our destination was only forty miles away and we’d arrive in early afternoon. The port was Sassnitz, a place we’d stopped in Germany for an overnight stay, where we’d eaten dinner on the dock and never even made it to land. We weren’t sure we’d get much farther on our second visit.

The wind was perfect, a beam reach (from the side), which is a comfortable and speedy point of sail. By mid-morning, we decided not to stop at Sassnitz. There is a bridge at the bottom of Sweden with a basin we could anchor just on the other side. The last opening was at ten o’clock.

The winds kept up all day and we reached the bridge (with a final jolt from the engine in the canal leading up to it) just in time for the eight PM opening. The basin was empty and quite calm. We dropped the anchor and settled in for an evening at home. Now that we were back in Scandinavia, we were in unlimited Internet territory, even underway.

In the morning, we left our spot and headed northward. This was the last weekend of Sweden’s four-week summer holiday, and sailboats fluttered in all directions like butterflies. Our winds lasted until we were within miles of Helsingør, Denmark, and we motored the last bit.

The only available spot was next to the fuel dock. It had a sign on it that said “Optaget”. We had little choice but to dock there. While we were tying up, Art asked someone on shore what that word meant. I’d hoped that was the name of a boat that was out on a long vacation. The answer: It means “reserved.” We docked anyway.

We’ve been in Helsingør twice on this boat, both times in 2007. It’s probably best known for its vast and gloomy castle, which inspired the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet (he called it “Elsinore”). We like the town, with its pedestrianized streets and welcoming cafés. But we’d arrived at about one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. In Northern Europe, Saturday afternoon might as well be Christmas Day. Nearly all the shops are closed. (Don’t even think about Sunday.) The supermarket would be open, though, and we had about a hundred dollars of Danish currency and no obvious future visit to Denmark. There was also an ice-cream-sized hole in the contents of our freezer. We went ashore.

First, we stopped at the harbor office to check in with the harbormaster. Closed for the weekend. Sure, the middle of summer, a beautiful Saturday; why should anyone be overseeing the yacht harbor? There was an ATM-like device on the outside wall of the harbor office. We found our rate, inserted some currency, and out popped a sticker for us to wrap on our lifelines. Was there any chance that someone would come by later and check that we’d bothered to do that?

A trip to the market, a butcher, a baker. All we needed was a candlestick maker and we’d have our own Hans Christian Andersen tale. And, of course, there’s a house on our way to town with a plaque stating that he’d lived and studied there. In the end, a chocolate bar in the kiosk in the marina took the last Danish crowns we had. We were broke.

And here we are, a dot on the GPS display. Mom, Dad: happy, happy 65th anniversary. How do you manage to do that and still look fifty-five?

Lots of love, Karen (and Art)