The Guilty Party

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Mountains and Fjords are Grand, But It's the People

My wife and I resolved some time ago to do whatever we can to See The World. Our ambitions are most likely well beyond our means, but simply the fact that we have made this pledge to ourselves will, we are sure, make a difference, help us find ways to do as much as is possible.

This year, to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary, we went on our first cruise, taking the Sapphire Princess from Vancouver to Whittier. From the ship or on the shore excursions we saw temperate rain forests of constantly regenerating life, beautiful lakes, glaciers, wildlife we had never seen outside a zoo or aquarium before, waterfall after waterfall, stunning seascapes of silver-green water dotted with white-blue-black floating ice. At Whittier we hopped on a glass topped train car for the ten hour journey to the lodge Princess operates just outside the northern edge and official entrance to Denali National Park. After a couple of days there, including a tour that took us over sixty miles into the the interior of this vast wilderness preserve, we hopped on a bus to spend a day and a night at their lodge to the south of Denali. During this time we found ourselves absolutely entranced with the sight, or sometimes just the possibility of the sight, of the highest spot in North America. Denali in person, even from forty miles away, is, in the truest sense of words, awe inspiring.

So if I may, I would like to share a few of the memories we took away from this trip of a lifetime.

Amidst all of Nature's Grandeur, it was impossible for us not to be impressed with, and want to know so much more about, the people who make these huge floating resorts work. The work they do is demanding, the option to have an off day does not exist, they are away from their families for months at a time and they are dealing with people who have paid a pretty good sum of money to leave everything to someone else and that someone else is them. Their patience, courtesy, level of expertise at their jobs and simply their extraordinary work ethic impressed us tremendously. We had the opportunity to speak with a few of them about themselves and their lives outside of the cruise ship and found warm, intelligent, perceptive people we would have greatly enjoyed sitting across from at the dinner table sharing entertaining and enlightening conversations.

One example would be the gentleman on the left side of this photo. Giuseppe was our waiter at Sabatini's, one of the "extra cost" dining rooms aboard the ship, where we had our anniversary dinner. He shared a bit of his life with us during the evening. In his fifties, he is back working on a cruise ship after over twenty years of owning his own business in the little Italian town of Bari. The bad economy did to his business what it has done to many small businesses throughout the world, his age made it difficult to find decent work close to home, so in spite of the fact that he has great work experience, speaks four languages and from what we could tell in our short time with him, would be an asset to any firm he found that his best option was to renew his association with the cruise industry, in spite of the fact that it keeps him away from his wife and family for months at a time. All of this was conveyed matter of factly, with no trace of bitterness or anger, simply an "It is what it is" sort of strength and gracious determination. His abilities as a waiter were absolutely top notch and his commentary on both the political situation in his beloved Italy as well as the mental state of its drivers "We're all crazy!" was both entertaining and eye opening. Our table was right by a good sized window and when I commented on the lovely, late evening view, he said "Yes, it is like music." We wish him much music in his life and can't thank him enough for sharing a bit of that life with us.

A few more Pretty Pictures.

Not bad, eh?

Lastly, I would like to say a word in praise of shared tables. Whenever we went down (or up, rather) to breakfast or lunch, we were asked at the door if we would like to share a table. Our answer was always a quick and definite "Yes, please." One of the things we discovered over the years in our stays at bed and breakfast establishments is that a real highlight of any day can be the people you meet at a shared meal. Of course, you may be stuck with bores who dominate the airwaves with endless anecdotes and opinions of little interest or nose in the marmalade recluses who barely nod in acknowledgement of any greeting or attempted introduction. But often as not people are interesting and life is about at its best when one is in the company of interesting people.

One lunch, we were seated with two other couples, a retired school principal and his wife from Minnesota by way of North Dakota and a lanky, bright eyed, bushy browed gentleman in his eighties who introduced himself as Conrad and a woman who I assumed was either his wife or at least his significant other, although I may have been mistaken, it is possible they were simply friends traveling together. There was much discussion that centered around the Catholic church, a subject dear to the retire principal and the woman with the older gentleman, but although it was occasionally entertaining, there wasn't much Anne or I could contribute, at least not without revealing ourselves as less than fans of organized religion and its famous consistency in creating both intended and collateral damage. With Anne being a teacher and with the retired principal, the topic of education got a bit of exercise and during the course of that we found out that the older gentleman, a quiet fellow, was himself a retired professor of literature and poetry. Irish poetry, in particular, was a specialty. This piqued my interest, so I asked him if he had a favorite Irish poet. Yes, William Butler Yeats. The woman with him offered up that Conrad had a regular radio spot on the local public station in which he read poetry. Very cool. A sort of regional version of Garrison Keillor's "A Writer's Almanac" and we were sharing a table with its host. And then, rather unexpectedly, Conrad asked if we would like to hear a poem?

He did not need to ask twice.

And so, from memory, and with only the slightest hesitation about halfway through, there in the International Dining Room of the Sapphire Princess in the waters off the coast of Alaska, Conrad recited, with great effect, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by W.B. Yeats.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
Wile I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Pretty cool, don't you think? We did, as our applause, I hope demonstrated. A few neighboring diners seemed to have listened in and they showed their appreciation too.

A few minutes later, Conrad excused himself quietly "for just a moment, I'm sure". Once again the various delightful foibles and idiosyncrasies of the Jesuits, Franciscans and Benedictines dominated the table. Then back came Conrad, to share that he was scheduled to perform in the ship's talent show and must excuse himself . We had heard earlier that no more than half a dozen people had signed up for this activity and we hadn't seen a reason to circle what thought surely would be a brief parade of adolescents lip syncing to Justin Bieber tunes. But if Conrad was going to recite poetry, step out of our way, we want good seats!

It turned out that the six entrants had been self-whittled down to just two, and by the time we got there, one of them had already performed. But up next was Conrad. Having just made what he thought was a delightful discovery Ketchikan Library (I think that is what he gave as his source), he brought to the microphone a poem called "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and delivered a true performance that I don't think anyone in the audience saw coming. It was a delight.

I have since Googled Conrad, using simply "Conrad Poetry" as my search, and found more about this interesting, poetry loving octogenarian. He doesn't seem to have a Facebook page, so I can't "Like" him, but I do want to thank him for contributing such a wonderful memory to a memorable trip. Here is an article written about him a couple of years ago.

"Conrad Balliet not only reads poetry..."

And thanks to Giuseppe and Ignacio (our waiter in the Santa Fe Dining Room, without whom we would have been lost our first day, a true professional) and Paul (the head waiter at Sabatini's who graciously arranged a special vegetarian risotto dinner for Anne), and Victoria (who directed the Princess Pop Choir with such good humor) and all of our excursion guides and drivers who shared their knowledge and expertise. The landscapes and seascapes were awesome, but it was the people who, often unexpectedly, brought that additional dimension to our trip that only reinforced our commitment to See The World.

A Bit About Me

My photo
I am a writer with a longtime interest in photography. I'm a dad, husband, photographer, and not very good guitarist. My first novel, Boomerang, is available in both paperback and ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and As a matter of fact, my second novel, The Baer Boys, can be found at exactly the same places.