international waters: baltic sea travel blog
Did you know Alexander Graham Bell originally wanted “ahoy” to be used as the standard greeting for answering the telephone? Sadly, it never caught on, but I still love it and I use it at every opportunity possible.
Back in August, my family and I went on a cruise to the Baltic Sea, a family reunion of sorts. They’d all gone to China last summer, but I had just moved to New York and was in the middle of an internship, so I couldn’t go. Just look at how cute they all are in their matching t-shirts:
But this was an interesting trip because we’d actually taken the exact same cruise back in 2005, the first time we’d traveled outside of the U.S. other than Mexico, and our very first time in Europe. Back then it was just me, my mom, my sisters, and my grandparents. This time, my grandparents wanted to travel with the whole family, now that the kids are all a little bit older. So we did! We always have Sunday night family dinners back home, but because I live across the country, I’m there significantly less often. So it was nice to meet in the middle, or in this case, Europe.
This trip was a nice refresher on European history, as well as the opportunity to revisit the places we’d gone and appreciate all of the things we didn’t the first time (because that was thirteen years ago), so please enjoy this travel blog ft. my entire family.
DAY 1: COPENHAGEN
2005: We visit a 7-Eleven for the first time. Why in Denmark, I don’t know, but ever since I’ve loved 7-Elevens in other countries. We go to the Little Mermaid statue, the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! museum, and watch fireworks at Tivoli Garden.
We leave Friday night for Copenhagen. It's crazy, because Marisa and I have always packed for vacations and gone on long flights together, but our mom and Kate were always with us. Now it's just us two, going through our standard trip packing list, watching movies, listening to music on our phones, and sharing Hot Cheetos (#bringbacktheasteroids).
I was 12 the last time we were in Copenhagen, so I don't remember much. I vaguely remember the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum, Tivoli Gardens, and getting breakfast at 7-Eleven, none of which are particularly Danish things. I remember the kroner had holes in them. And that's about it. It’s funny what your memory retains when you’re nine. I've got a travel journal saved somewhere back home in San Diego, in which I would write short little descriptions of our days and draw pictures (my mom's idea). I kind of wish I could find it now. Oh well. New start, new adventures, new travel journal!
It's quite disorienting to sleep for a couple of hours at midnight and wake up in the middle of the day. The coast of Denmark is gorgeous, jewel-blue and I can't help but marvel at how colorful everything is. I can see clear across the city because there are no tall buildings. The clouds are soft, fluffy little things and we swoop right beneath them. Some very skilled flying by the pilot, honestly, as we loop around to the shore.
The streets, the sidewalk cafés, the architecture...it's all vaguely Parisian, which I don't remember from last time. The canal reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Amsterdam. Everything is so cute and tiny here, from the doorways to the tables, which is interesting because people here are generally taller (Copenhagen, it seems, is 95% white; 94.95% since my family is here).
We check into the Wakeup Copenhagen hotel. It's very modern-looking, more like a hostel or an Airbnb than a hotel. Again everything is very small, from the typical cylindrical glass European showers to the beds. I remember the tables being curiously small in Paris as well. I wonder if that’s a reflection of the way they eat. And if American tables are a reflection of the enormous portions afforded to us.
We realize we are tragically underdressed for the weather here; the weather report said 75°F but I guess in Europe that means cool and rainy. My mom and my sisters and I decide that we're all just going to borrow each others' clothes since we now all wear the same size.
My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my sisters, my mom, and I all get shwarma and crêpes and walk along the canal. It’s only nine of us right now, because we’re meeting everyone else on the boat, but I can already feel the eyes of strangers on us.
day 2: the msc preziosa
We walk around for a bit, stopping at H&M in search of sweaters (I buy a pink one that I end up wearing every single night), and then board the ship.
The MSC Preziosa (the only reference to this I can find is a star) has all of the opulence typical of a cruise ship—clear plexiglass stairs studded with diamonds and illuminated by lights to the point that you can’t look down without risking blindness, aquamarine-tiled infinity pool, sandstone-colored atrium lined with Grecian-style columns and statues.
There are 21 of us on this boat, so this should be very interesting indeed. But we always have fun and we are always a spectacle, whether it’s my mom marching a bunch of kids into the cruise ship dining room for afternoon tea, my grandma and aunts haggling loudly and enthusiastically with street vendors, or us waiting in line for St. Peter’s Basilica wearing my baby cousin’s blankets as makeshift skirts because the Vatican doesn’t allow shorts inside.
Marisa and I are sharing a cabin. I note that this is the first time we've been on a cruise where we've both been 21, the minimum age to stay in a cabin by yourself. We used to book under my dad's name and switch rooms so we could be together, and we'd wander around the ship going to trivia, watching movies in our cabin before dinner, and ordering grilled cheese sandwiches from room service at all hours of the night.
We kick off our night by napping for two hours—jet lag has not been kind to me; I’ve hardly done anything in the past two days, but I’m exhausted. Nor to Marisa, who after visiting me in New York and then flying here has been in three different time zones in four days.
We go to dinner, which is an event in itself since we take up three tables. Our dining room is “The Golden Lobster,” and we’re on the lower level, so our cruise cards simply designate “LOB LOW.” Marisa and I find this hilarious.
After dinner, there’s a show, which is...by far the strangest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life. There is no discernible theme. I’m still confused by it. I can only infer that this is not designed for an American audience. Marisa and I are convinced we’re on drugs. There’s a lot going on, not limited to: juggling, aerial silks, and a woman on a stripper pole. There is also literally no reason for them to be dressed the way they are, which is as flowers and trees.
And then we continue the Chang family tradition of going up to the top deck and eating pizza, drinking tea, and playing cards at midnight, long after everyone else has left the buffet.
day 3: at sea
I wake up to breakfast being delivered to my door, which is quite nice.
The logistics of this cruise never fail to astound me. Everything takes a good amount of time because instructions and/or announcements have to be repeated six times: in English, in Spanish, in French, in German, in Italian, and in Russian. The cruise director, Sandro, is amazing and adorable and speaks all six. I want him to adopt me.
We go to something called “Masterchef at Sea,” which is intriguing because we are big Food Network fans. Entry is a series of ten food trivia questions, and my mom and my aunt put their names in but get three wrong, which I’m salty about because I knew the answers to two of them but was late. Questions: What plant is tequila made of (agave), and what year did Heinz start producing ketchup (1876). Oddly enough, there’s very little chefery involved. Contestants are given some kind of pasta and ten minutes, but they don't actually cook anything, just assemble it.
"More like Master Prep Chef," my uncle remarks.
It's cold and raining outside, so not ideal swimming weather like we’d hoped. Instead, we go to lunch and then trivia, because we are also big trivia fans. In case you hadn’t already picked up on it, my family has a set list of things we like to do on every cruise. One, afternoon tea. Two, playing cards and eating pizza at the buffet. And three, trivia. I’m curious to see how they do it, because they’ve got to appeal to a lot of different audiences on this cruise. As it turns out, this is a strange international version in which we have to guess celebrities by their caricatures. We do not do very well.
Tonight is formal night, so we get all dressed up for dinner. “Formal” attire is left to the discretion of the guests, which is amusing when you see people in actual evening gowns and tuxedos, and then my little cousins in their Nike t-shirts.
day 4: stockholm
2005: We see Stockholm's City Hall and, at our mom's urging, pick out thimbles to start our collection. I choose one with a little red horse on it, encircled by little Swedish flags.
We wake up and eat breakfast with the whole family, which is...meh, considering I am neither a breakfast person nor a great conversationalist in the morning.
We board a Hop On/Hop Off boat, where we can see the entire harbor. It’s very beautiful, with colorful shipping containers sprinkled along the shoreline and tiny little buildings nestled into the trees. It looks like a miniature model of a city; it’s that perfect and uniform.
I really want to go to the ABBA museum (ABBA + museum = two of my favorite things) but no one else is as enthused as I am, so we opt for Old Town instead.
It’s actually very cute. We skip the royal palace but manage to take a picture with the guard. I wonder what possesses someone to take a job like that, where you have to stand perfectly still and stoic for hours.
We walk around a bit, enjoying the empty streets. Lots of cute thrift stores and antique shops. There’s no one out, really, save for a couple of groups of tourists and some locals casually sitting outside and sipping coffee. I’ve realized that travel photography is mostly waiting for other people to get out of your shot.
We get on a Hop On/Hop Off, a bus this time, and we drive through the city listening to ABBA, or at least I am. I consider how much better my life would be if the soundtrack to my life were ABBA.
Everything is charming, picturesque. Cute and small and Scandinavian. Very old. Someone once told me to visit Asia now while I can because it’s modernizing so fast, but “Europe will always be there.”
The bus seems to loop around the downtown area several times. Stress level: trying to figure out in what country we should meet the ship should we not make it back to board on time.
We stress-eat pizza at the buffet, take a nap, and head straight downstairs to the restaurant for dinner. It's no wonder people gain so much weight on cruises; there’s just so much food, all the time.
day 5: tallinn
2005: We hike up to some sort of hilltop, on cobblestone streets, where we can see the whole city.
My first thoughts on Estonia is that there isn't much. But the architecture is beautiful, lots of pastel buildings and quaint cobblestone streets. Very empty. Everything looks straight out of /r/AccidentallyWesAnderson. Including, oddly enough, a small blue train that chugs through the streets. It feels a little like Disneyland; it doesn’t quite feel like a real place where people live.
We amble around Old Town, taking in the crowded square. We’re traveling with so many people that we make the tiny streets of Estonia look very crowded, which is a very good metaphor for my family going anywhere (we used to go to Souplantation for family dinners and we’d take up half the back patio).
Uncle Dave, Aunty Sung, Aunty Sonia, Marisa, and I take the kids up to the top of the bell tower, which ends up being much more difficult than it looks. The steps are a foot and a half tall, which means taking giant steps like velociraptors up ten flights, which is exhausting. This is my exercise for the week. There’s a bell at the top that Uncle Dave rings, until we see a sign that says it rings every hour on the hour. I cannot stress how on-brand us potentially breaking a 110-year-old relic is.
day 6: st. petersburg
2005: We drink tea and eat pastries at a restaurant (delightedly noting that "RESTAURANT" is spelled "PECTOPAH" in Russian) and see the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood. We note that the guy that’s been following our tour group is not, in fact, carrying an umbrella, but a gun disguised as an umbrella. We are all significantly more on edge after.
If you've watched enough movies about family vacations, you'll know that there's always one ridiculous scene where they're all wearing matching t-shirts. And if you know my family well, you'll know that we 100% are that family. So matching t-shirts it was. And we're all wearing them today.
We wake up early—much too early—to board a tour bus from the cruise terminal to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide’s name is Marina and our bus driver’s name is Ivan (of course it is, Marisa and I say to each other).
We go to the Summer Palace of Catherine the Great in the town of Tsarskoye Selo. It looks very much like Versailles (1682) whereas this one was built in 1717, so I’m assuming this one was modeled after that. Same Baroque-esque paintings on the ceiling (I later discover that Rococo-style architecture was, in fact, late Baroque period, so I am not completely wrong). Same ornate gold curlicue decorations. Same cherub motif everywhere.
One of the rooms looks exactly like the Hall of Mirrors. It’s almost indistinguishable. If you dropped me in the middle of either one I don’t think I would be able to tell which was which. I’m convinced all of the royals just used the same architect. The Palace Guy. Oh, you need something done? I’ll give you the number of my Palace Guy.
"It all looks kind of fake," Marisa observes. "They could've replaced it all with fake gold and no one would've noticed." It appears the Russian oligarchs were not ones for cost-cutting. I think that’s part of the ostentatious nature of royalty—although they could have used fake gold, you know with absolute certainty it’s real. And for what? I don’t think I would feel comfortable in my house if it were all gold. And not feeling comfortable in your own home is probably the worst possible scenario.
There’s a lot of interesting—and often tragic—trivia in royal history. Apparently Catherine the Great’s only legal son was assassinated four years, four months, and four days after taking the throne. And apparently (unrelated) she demanded that her cavaliers be six feet tall, blonde, and blue-eyed.
There’s also an entire room full of amber, which is distinctly Baltic. I actually remember that from 2005, when a Polish shop owner gave us little amber heart pendants as a gift. My uncle and I almost get kicked out for taking the picture, which is also very on-brand.
We eat lunch at a restaurant (PECTOPAH), which is quite interesting. The four courses are an egg salad-type thing (which I leave untouched), ruby-colored borscht (which is actually quite good), a beef stroganoff-type thing with pickles (which I like a lot), and a sweet pudding made of grits and topped with strawberry coulis (which none of us like until we try it and discover that the weirdly-textured stuff is, in fact, grits).
All of this finished with a round of vodka shots. Everyone tries it, even my mom, who doesn’t drink, because when in Russia...
We stop by the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, which was built for Alexander the Third's assassination, on the exact site where he was assassinated by terrorists, and then board a boat on the Neva River.
We pass the St. Petersburg Mosque, a brilliant turquoise-and-white structure built in 1904 at the request of Peter the Great. He wanted St. Petersburg to be a multinational city and was very pro-Westernization, insisting that people wear European clothes to emulate European style.
He was an interesting guy. Apparently, he once got pneumonia saving a laborer that had fallen overboard at the launch party for one of his ships, and lived in Holland for a brief period of time under an alias so no one knew he was a czar, because he wanted to be treated as a commoner.
The State Hermitage Museum is the third-largest gallery in the world after the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London. It's estimated that if you wanted to spend just ten minutes in front of every painting in the gallery, you'd need about ten years. It’s green and white, a very Baroque architectural decision, and with the bright colors and symmetrical buildings, you can see where Eastern European architectural styles all kind of blend together.
We get back to the boat (the bigger boat) in time for dinner. Update: After five days "LOB LOW" is still funny.
After dinner, Marisa and I are lounging around in our room when we hear a knock at the door. There are two stewards outside our door, one holding a platter of caviar appetizers and one holding an ice bucket with a bottle of Prosecco. "This is for you!" the one holding the snacks exclaims.
"Wait...no, you have the wrong room."
"No, it's for you!" he gestures to our room number. "Just read the card," he instructs us, retreating back into the hall.
As it turns out, it’s an apology from the cruise line because our toilet had a little flooding issue the first day, but we didn’t call maintenance until yesterday because we’d been adjusting it ourselves. And now they’re here, offering us champagne and caviar. It’s so cute. Whatever lukewarm feelings we had about this cruise line have disappeared. MSC definitely has a lot of heart. Like how the waiter at dinner greets Marisa by name and sometimes brings us extra desserts. Or that every time we get back from an excursion, the cruise staff is waiting with cookies and iced tea (earlier today when we were leaving Russian passport control, Sandro the cruise director was personally handing out cookies to guests in his little velvet blazer—so cute). But those things are the differentiators; the little details like that are what make loyal customers. We talk a lot about surprise and delight in CX-based industries, but it really is true. Marisa and I toast to second impressions and drink champagne in our sweatpants.
day 7: at sea
We wake up and go to beer quiz. I thought it meant like pub quiz. Marisa is hoping that they’ll serve beer, even if it is 11 am. As it turns out, it’s actually identifying the country of origin of a bunch of different beers. Uncle Glenn, who happens to be very passionate about beer, helps us a lot, but I actually manage to identify a Japanese beer using context clues. We receive an MSC hat as our prize. Rad.
We meet for lunch in the dining room and watch “Tribal Games” on the pool deck, which is always fun because there’s always some variation of it on every cruise—it’s basically a bunch of adults making fools of themselves. Uncle Glenn and I watch, silently judging, with our mugs of tea. I think you’d have to pay me quite a bit of money to get me to participate in one of those games, in a bathing suit, in public.
We do trivia next, and this one is tricky—it’s identifying currency, which is a lot harder than we anticipated. We take our afternoon nap and go for dinner and the second formal night. It’s the last night at sea, so we stay up a little later and head up to the top deck for a foxtrot lesson and a dance party.
It’s late at night but the top deck is jamming. There’s a band playing and everyone is dancing, even the cruise staff—two of them lead my aunt and my grandma onto the dance floor, despite my aunt’s protests, and we think it’s the funniest thing. We note that the culture is much different than that of American cruises. My mom points out that even young boys dance with their mothers, something I can’t picture many American teenagers doing. It’s loud, boisterous, family fun, and we feel right at home.
day 8: kiel
2005: We go to Warnemünde, a small seaside town. I don’t remember much, other than the fact that the adults are dismayed by the fact that they serve German wine, not beer, at lunch.
Today...is not a good day. I went to bed feeling a bit sick, and today it’s a full-on fever. Or at least I think it’s a fever. I’m too delirious to tell. I opt to stay on the boat, which is a good choice because I sleep most of the day, only leaving the room to get pizza and tea.
Instead, with my limited internet, I finally read Crazy Rich Asians, which has been sitting in my Amazon library for ages. I’m prepping myself to see the movie this week when I’m back in New York, and as usual, I have a lot of thoughts.
A little bit of context about my relationship with this book—I actually heard about it when it was first released. A bunch of people had told me to read this book by “this new Asian-American author,” and so I picked it up in Barnes and Noble. My first impressions of it was silly, light beach read, which I don’t particularly enjoy. The characters came across as superficial caricatures and the dialogue felt awkward, especially in trying to accommodate the Singlish slang. I couldn’t finish it.
I tried again while I was in Singapore, hoping I had just missed the context before, but I still couldn’t get into it. Not to mention as a new college grad working full-time and traveling on my own dime, I didn't really recognize the Singapore described in the book (I've literally never heard anyone say "alamak," especially not with the frequency with which it's used in the book).
I have a rule that I have to read books prior to seeing the movie or TV version, and so my commitment to reading Crazy Rich Asians is purely a demonstration of support for the Asian-American arts. I am not the kind of person to stick with a book if I don’t enjoy it. I just can’t do it. I’ve read too many books out of obligation in my lifetime, and I see no reason to do it anymore. But I do finish this one, because it’s important, and because I’m sick in bed with a fever in the middle of the Baltic Sea with little else to do.
It’s not something I’d read again by choice, but I do finally understand the satirical nature of it and its focus on the Asian-American experience, which makes me a bit more forgiving. But I’m still skeptical. And so I start digging. I read think pieces on race and culture in film, on awful Asian stereotypes and the lack of romance in Asian culture in mainstream media. Interviews with the cast, discussing their experiences with being the only Asian in the room for most of their careers. Articles about the author and director refusing a “life-changing” amount of money from Netflix in order to make the film with Warner Brothers, to prove that an all-Asian cast is commercially viable. Tweets from Asian-Americans all over the country, about the thrill of seeing Asian leads on-screen for the first time in their lives, how this one movie has changed their perceptions of self, their relationships with their Asian heritage.
And finally, finally after five years, I am excited for this movie.
Edit: Watched it, loved it, wrote about it.
I feel well enough to eat again, so I order some soup from room service and some bread and butter. I’ve had bread and butter at every meal so far, so that’s at least 13 packets of butter on this trip. Delicious.
day 9: copenhagen
It’s our last day in the Baltic; we disembark from the ship and settle back into the Wakeup Copenhagen hotel. The rest of my family stays behind while I catch my flight back to New York. It was nice to be surrounded by the chaos that is my family, if only for a week. I won’t see them until Christmas. But it’s nice now that the kids are all a little older, that wherever we happen to be, we can meet up around the world and go on these trips together and appreciate them. I’m already ready for the next one.
See you soon.