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Better Than Disney

June 3, 2014

We temporarily interrupt this Japan Travel Blog to bring you an Elbe River Cruise Travel Blog.  We will return to Japan presently.  There. Is. More.

You, gentle reader, may or may not be aware of the Flint Girls’ Biennial Trip-of-a-Lifetime.  Since I have lived here, just south of Europe, my sister visits every other year.  Frog Hops Travel:  Private touring customized for select and discriminating clients. That means friends and family who accept that you get what you pay for.  This year has already been very busy for Frog Hops.  When Bonnie suggested a tour, I was more amenable than I might have been.  Being herded around, told what to see and when, isn’t generally my speed.  But suddenly letting someone else handle all the logistics, planning,  and hassle was quite appealing.  Write a check and just show up.  I’ve seen so many quaint Euro villages, old churches, and cobblestone streets that this trip is really just about spending time with my sister.  So what if these things trend toward the “active senior” set?  Bonnie is approaching retirement, even if she doesn’t look it.  We would end up in Prague, commemorating 10 years to the month since our mother, whose grandparents emigrated from the region, went over Rainbow Bridge …. er…. was promoted to Glory.

The first part, in Berlin, was quite interesting.  Both guides were born in East Germany, offering their own stories and perspectives.  This was very enlightening and worth further exploration here, but not what this post is about.  That is for another day.

The crew of the MS River Allegro were lined up to greet us, starched and smiling.  From this moment they began learning our names, calling us by them at every opportunity, despite the fact that my sister and I are naughty and seldom wore the name tags.  That is what this post is about.  The amazing crew.  I have never been treated like that.

When the cruise was over, it felt like the end of summer camp, leaving our favorite counselors, such a sudden severance from those people who had been so wonderful.  They made every one of us feel like their favorite.  Imagine how it lifts a body’s spirit when faces light up at the sight of you?  Knowing they work long days, seven days a week for months on end, any time “off” spliced in around us being away from the ship, I am blown away.  Our particular cruise must have been… memorable for them as well.  At least six ambulances, one ER by taxi, and one passenger left in hospital had some of the others whispering “plague ship.”  It was just a virulent cold, but those who are weak to begin with and unaccustomed to adversity out of their element suffered.  To that I say, wash your hands and drink more water.  But despite all of that excitement, and in the face of it, the service never faltered.  Some went above and beyond, helping paramedics to hang IV bags in cabins never designed for it.  I’m sure there was more which was kept private.  There was only the barest murmur that these events were, in fact, extraordinary.

So, we began with Rupy, our cabin attendant.  The berths were couches by day and had to be converted to beds at night.  He was there, twice a day, always when we were out, flipping furniture, tidying up, keeping me supplied with the ratty old towels I requested for drying my purple hair.  And being kind to Vermintino! He is my little IKEA Gösigmus who has traveled the world with me.  Every evening, I found him on the pillow, nibbling a chocolate.  Passing Rupy in the hallway, he always greeted us cheerfully, by name.

And then there was Mateo, the Hotel Manager, in charge of all things hospitality.  With deft judgment of character, he balanced superintendence with bonhomie to fit any need for competence and approachability.  And he danced with us.  But more of that later.  He felt like a friend, the kind who “knows a guy” for whatever you might need.

At every meal, I felt like a beloved princess.  First thing, it was made clear that they wanted us to be unreservedly happy.  If anything made us unhappy, we were to say so, immediately, and we would be made happy.  Not to be waiting until the end of the cruise to complain, when it would be too late.  They succeeded.  From the faintest air of hurt when I accidentally denied them their duty to twitch the napkin onto my lap to the genuine smiles when I squealed over dessert, they pampered me like royalty, and not the kind that Staff just fear.  Doing my best to live compassionately, I had requested the vegetarian option, as offered.  I am acutely aware of German and Czech cuisine: vegetarian means “just a little meat.”  Even salads are mostly meat.  The dining room manager, Krishna, found me right away to assure me that Chef was aware of my request.  The galley never failed to provide a good option for me.  One dinner, only one, was disappointing.  Krishna noticed my plate and asked about it.  I said it wasn’t a winner.  He was clearly quite concerned, asked what he could do to fix it, would I like the salmon?  (I pursue vegetarianism out of a profound compunction against factory farms; the occasional wild fish consumed with gratitude and respect is still on my plate).  Yes, thank you.  It was good.  I was happy.  He could relax.  Every meal was plentiful and replete with options, graciously served.  The attentiveness of the servers was astounding.  I would hardly finish the thought, “Oh, I need another spoon/fork/napkin/ tea refill…” when it would appear.  The lunchtime salad bar was not only excellent, in addition to offerings from the galley, it provided the service of helping us remember how to feed ourselves for the dark days to come when Krishna and his crew would be lavishing their attention on others.

Restaurant

For this acute introvert, the tour group atmosphere, while often very rewarding, is also quite draining.  Extroversion is a learned skill for me.  I need time without social interaction to recharge my batteries.  Hello, Pankaj!  The Allegro keeps a massage therapist on board.  In a quiet little interior room, lights low and gentle ambient music playing, he worked out the places where tension sits and knits.  He attended to the muscles from which I asked so much on the dance floor every night.  That man kept my back happy.  And if it ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  One more person passing out in front of them might have been the last straw for our indomitable Program Directors.

Yes, the dancing.  All but a handful of the passengers disappeared into their cabins right after dinner every night, yet there was a man playing music in the lounge (on an incredibly tech keyboard arrangement) and a lovely little wooden dance floor sitting empty.  An intrepid few shook a tail feather with me some nights ~Ginger, Barbara, Pam, Tom, Sue, Allen, Mateo & mein Kapitän, and of course, Bonnie, my thanks to you for the company.  But much of the time, Tihomir was playing only for me.  I love to dance, “interpretive” they call it; my generation never learned to dance properly… with rather than just near someone (or possibly at (Amy! Mind if I dance atcho’ date?), and clubs don’t play music I like anymore.  So, this was fantastic.  I felt like Lady Gaga with my personal musician, just working out my moves on the floor.  An hour or two (sometimes more!) every night kept the wonderful sins at bay which Chef kept serving up.  It was fun.  So.  Much.  Fun.  Тихомир, Благодаря ви от дъното на моите подметки. Надявам се, че не е твърде много допълнителна работа за вас.

Musik Nacht

A crew like this doesn’t just happen.  People need good leadership to work in concert, in close and ever-present quarters, for such extended periods of time.  The people we saw the most, the hospitality staff, have in Mateo energy, inspiration, and so importantly, example.  But the man at the top, responsible for everything on his ship, mein Kapitän Luderer, is the lynchpin.  It is obvious that the crew love him.  He doesn’t hold himself above and apart.  He makes himself available to the passengers, unlike some captains who see their responsibilities confined to wheelhouse and engine room.  He even shared his personal pleasure with us, an evening of live music, singing and playing his guitar.  Songs I like, sung with a German accent?  Jah, bitte.  How did they know?  I only wish a recording had been included on the farewell disk of photos and menus. (Hint, hint: Christian, können Sie damit dies geschieht? Sicherlich bin ich nicht der einzige.)

Mi Lindo Mateo & mein Kapitän

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