This weekend we took Grandma Kay and Pa out to Belgium’s largest seaside resort. We had never been to Oostende before, and it was a surprisingly pleasant outing. While it was quite different from an Australian beach – much cooler, and much more built-up, it still felt like we were stepping into a holiday town. The shops were brimming with toys and cycles, and the promenade was filled with people quietly walking along the shore. Though I did think that the fluorescent orange installation of “Rock Strangers” by Arne Quinze clashed with the pastel colours of the vista and interfered with the tranquility of the setting.

The main goal of our outing was to see the Disney Summer Sand Sculptures that had been set up along the beach. As they say in Belgium, it’s not summer without sand sculptures.

The two month exhibit (ending 31 August) featured 40 sculptures by 30 artists of 12 nationalities. The Theme is Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park, and dozens of landmarks from the parks have been painstakingly recreated in golden sand. My favourite was a 12 meter high recreation of the most beautiful Disneyland castle, Château de la Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty’s Castle).

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They also created sculptures of all the beloved characters from Disney films, including The Lion King.

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Hayden liked Mickey Mouse and Captain Hook, as well as the bouncy castle and the trampoline. We brought his own bucket and spade, but he fell asleep before he could get a chance to use them.

There were also three sculptures celebrating Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy, the new attraction that has just launched in Disneyland Paris. It has been called “a welcome oasis of ersatz France in an ocean of ersatz America”. This new town square of La Place de Rémy features a fountain, a restaurant, a boutique, and a new family ride in giant ratmobiles (only 201 days till we see it for ourselves).

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The Cruise Compasses for the Scan Russia cruise can be found here (5 MB, slow download, Day 7 is missing).

June 28. Stockholm, Sweden

We flew to Stockholm via Copenhagen, and after finally finding our hotel room, we met Pa and Grandma Kay at the Aifur Krog Viking Restaurant. The start was a bit unpleasant, as Hayden had sore knees and we had to wait a while for some milk to mix with the ibuprofen. Plus, we had arrived too early for a personalised announcement from the resident viking. However, once Hayden’s owies were banished and the food arrived, the rest of the meal was fun. The food was great, and Hayden loved clapping enthusiastically whenever new guests arrived. I had Grebysoup with Bautabread (Crawfish and prawn soup with fresh baked bread, 159 SEK). Dessert was a very interesting Toftas rice “pancake” concoction with Salm berries and blackberries (105 SEK).

The next morning we walked along the harbour to the Vasa Museum (adults 130 SEK, children under 18 free). Built around a salvaged ship, it was both erie and beautiful. The huge wooden ship soared above us. A reconstruction demonstrated that a large part of the ship was actually painted in the kings colour’s of pink and gold – once again emphasising how the construct of pink being solely for girls is both recent and ridiculous. Hayden explored the ship from bottom to top, climbing on the reconstructed cannon displays and warning us about the “very scary tiger” engravings.

June 29. Embarkment, Legend of the Seas, Royal Caribbean

After a very speedy embarkment process, we made our way to the Park Cafe on Deck 9 for a quiet lunch with custom salads. I had a shrimp and mozzarella salad with raspberry dressing. The Windjammer restaurant was also open, with sample Japanese sushi rolls available for $5 a box. I would have liked to try the Izumi restaurant, but it was hard to turn down the delicious free food available in the Main Dining Room.

As Hayden is 2 years 11 months, he is classified as a Royal Tot and not an Aquanaut. The be an Aquanaut, the child has to be aged 3 on the day of sailing and fully potty-trained. I was originally disappointed by this rule, but it turned out that the Royal Tot programme was indeed better suited for him. I think he prefers to be the oldest child in a setting, rather than the youngest, and he still loved all the activities in the Royal Tot program. Royal Caribbean had told me online and by phone that they had discontinued their Toy Lending program, but Cruise Critic and their newsletter on the ship stated that it was still available. This was such a great idea – Hayden was able to borrow a bag full of toys to play with for the rest of the trip. We chose a package that had a train, a car, two elephants, a lion, and a puppy – a strange Disney situation where Dumbo, Simba, and a single Dalmatian all ride in a train together. Hayden loved the animals and they kept him entertained during the muster and for the rest of the cruise. “Hayden loves upyumyums”.

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My life is usually spent attacking a growing to-do list and constantly working towards Inbox Zero, so I need some time to realise that my Out Of Office reply is fielding requests, and it is time to shift my priorities from tasks to experiences. This is quite difficult for me, especially with a mercurial toddler who expects me to grand his every wish instantly. I still struggle finding a holiday rhythm that suits us all, so I decided to start the cruise with an experience designed to relax – sitting up in the Crown Viking observation lounge, looking over Stockholm, and drinking a Torched Cherry Sangria cocktail (Barcadi Torched Cerry rum, Contreau, red wine and fresh citrus).

After a while, I wandered down to deck 10 and found my boys attempting a round of mini-golf. While Hayden did understand the concept one had to hit the ball with the golf club to get it in the hole, he insisted on using the narrow edge of his golf club and then climbing up the astro-turfed hills to survey his domain. We decided not to sign up for the family mini-golf competition that was to be held later on in the week. We did, however, sign Adrian up for the unlimited soft-drink package ($7.50 per day, a total of US$52.33 inc tips).

The music started, the ship moved off from the dock, and it was time for the sail-away party to begin. Hayden celebrated with a plate of cookies from Park Cafe, and I had an Ultimate Mai Tai (Pyrat XO Reserve rum, Disaronno, orange and pineapple juices and grenadine) in a souvenir glass (US$9.20 inc tip). I would have loved to take the souvenir glass home, but I don’t think it would have survived in our luggage. Next time I should take a small boxes to pack it up carefully.

We watched the gulls riding in our wake until the wind picked up.

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Dinner in the Romeo and Juliet Main Dining Room was delightful. We had My Time Dining, and while the Royal Caribbean website stated that one should still make a reservation, the Cruise Critic forums said that wasn’t necessary. Indeed, without a reservation we still only had to wait a few minutes for them to find a table for five. Hayden was a bit noisy at first, but Adrian soon settled him down and he was great company for the rest of the meal. I had a delicious dinner of fruit salad, horseradish encrusted salmon, and strawberry Charlotte.

While Adrian put Hayden to bed, I wandered the ship, getting my bearings and checking the logistics for our first port day tomorrow.

The weather was cooler than I had expected, so I bought a reversible fleece jacket (US$39), which kept me snug and happy as we travelled north.

I learned that the password for the messages the stateroom phone was my stateroom then 7, ie 80797. This made it very convenient to make plans with the other members of our sailing crew.

June 30. Helsinki, Finland

Adrian and Hayden started their day with Play Group and Adventure Art at the nursery, while I made my own Pandora-style charm bracelet (US$39) with a tiny ship, anchor, and blue glass beads.

I then returned to the nursery and gave Adrian some free time. Hayden was the only child in the room, but he had a great time. He loved putting the balls down the chutes and did some great ocean-themed drawing and stamping. The only difficult part was getting him to put on pants at the end of it all.

We made the mistake of trying to get off the ship as soon as it was cleared, which made for a slow process as 2,076 other passengers also tried to get off at the same time. Once we finally made it off the ship, we caught the shuttle bus (10 euro return) from the dock to the centre of Helsinki, and Hayden celebrated his 30th country. We ate a simple lunch at Cafe Ekberg, and then walked along the esplanade, along the water, and then around the outside of Uspensky Cathedral. We decided to take a ride on the enclosed Ferris wheel (12 euro for adults, toddlers free), Hayden’s first, and he had a wonderful time going “very high” and then waving to his grandparents and his pram.

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At Market Square, Hayden picked out a bright blue striped angora jumper (20 euro), which kept him warm for the next week. There were also some cute reindeer ponchos, but Hayden shook his head firmly.

We walked to Senate Square and Hayden climbed up all those stairs to the Helsinki Cathedral at the top. “Very quiet” he announced repeatedly and loudly once inside. He refused to hold my hand while climbing back down all the stairs, which did cause a bit of a battle of wills and a lie-down protest.

We finished up our time in Helsinki with a trip to the supermarket to buy nappies and dummies, a coffee in the esplanade, and a visit to a toy-shop to buy six tiny dinosaurs that lived in my purse for the rest of the trip, and often bathed in milk and water during meals. It was very windy back at the ship.

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July 1. St Petersburg, Russia, Day One

Normally a visa is required for a trip to Russia, but the cruise ships have made a deal with the immigration department that guests with a pre-booked shore excursion are exempt from this rule. We booked a private “Two Day Relaxed Tour of St Petersburg” from TJ Travel, designed for families with children, for less than the price of a group tour through Royal Caribbean. The tour could have been a bit more relaxed – we had one of those very enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides who wanted to show us and tell us everything, and couldn’t understand that sometimes we just wanted to sit down and let Hayden play.

I have been to many countries from the former USSR, but this was my first time in Russia. I had heard many fantastic stories about St Petersburg, and I was really looking forward to it. It took us a long time to get through immigration, but finally our passports were stamped, and our guide was waiting for us to whisk us through to the Hermitage.

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The hermitage wasn’t too bad with a toddler, we were permitted to keep our pram and there weren’t too many flights of stairs. Hayden snacked on his bag of Cheerios from breakfast and was fairly content to look at all the shiny ornaments around him. Hayden was very well behaved, climbing up and down all the red and white stairs by himself, and being so adorable in the bathroom that no one minded that he had cut to the front of the line.

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Our guide showed us the hidden doors and passageways that were used by the servants when the Hermitage was the Winter Palace, running to grant all the whims of the royals, and I was uncomfortably reminded of the similar structures that we have here on our cruise ship. My favourite piece was the clockwork peacock display.

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We caught the hydrofoil boat and spent the afternoon at the UNESCO-listed Peterhof Palace Upper Gardens and Lower Fountain Park, very reminiscent of Versailles.

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I was very impressed to hear that all the fountains in the gardens were powered by gravity, some reaching 20 meters high. We also learned that Catherine the Great hated fountains, and mandated that none were to be built in her palace.

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Hayden, Adrian, and I climbed all the stairs to the top of the dragon fountain, while the others took the pram up the ramp to meet the van.

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While Pa and Grandma Kay went on an evening canal cruise, the three of us had an intimate family dinner at the Romeo and Juliet Main Dining Room. Hayden was very well behaved – quietly eating and sharing his chicken fingers. I had a glass of white wine (US$9.20), a shrimp cocktail, hamburger sliders, and pecan pie. After such a busy day, I enjoyed sitting back and relaxing with my two boys, chatting about our holiday so far and our anticipation of future sights.

In Expo 58, Jonathan Coe states that the idea that Russians say Na zdorovie as a toast is a popular myth. “We say it to foreigners, because – knowing no better – they say it to us, and we are too polite to embarrass them. But no Russian would ever say it to another Russian. We have an elaborate etiquette of toasts… Toasts which must be spoken in a certain order. Toasts which signal the start of a celebration, and those which signal the end… A relatively new toast means “May all your scheduled tasks be completed according to the designated timetable”".

Tonight’s towel animal was a cat (?)

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July 2. St Petersburg, Russia, Day Two

We started off our day with a trip on the St Petersburg metro, which was interesting. We left the stroller in the van, and caught the impossibly long escalator down into the depths of the underground, beneath the subterranean swamp of the city. Hayden happily sat next to me on the metro – we are both more comfortable on public transport than in a car.

We arrived at Nevsky Prospekt shopping street at 10am, just in time for the opening of the glorious art nouveau Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall (Елисеевский магазин).

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Hayden’s favourite bit of his whole time in Russia was watching the spinning figures in the window display at the front of the shop, and riding the bronze bulldog around the corner. He loved naming all the “upyumyum mans” and identifying the foods that they were dancing upon.

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We then stopped at the Church on Spilt Blood (Церковь на Крови), built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, begun in 1883 under Alexander III as a memorial to his father.

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The Catherine Palace (Екатерининский дворец) is a Rococo palace located 25 km southeast of St. Petersburg. It was the summer residence of Catherine the great. The Catherine Palace was a bit of a disaster with a toddler. Firstly, we were forced to check our pram into the cloak-room. Then, we were all required to wear brown booties over our shoes to protect the floor. There were lots of people and statues in period costume around at this moment, so Hayden decided that these booties were princess booties. He refused to wear them over his gumboots, stating “Hayden is not a princess”. He also didn’t like anyone else wearing these booties. “Mummy is not a princess” he said, trying to take off my booties. “Daddy is not a princess”. “Pa is not a princess”. “Grandma Kay is not a princess”. Finally we convinced him to take off his boots and walk around in his socks. The rooms were very frustrating for him – very crowded hallways with tempting areas cordoned-off by just a small gold rope. “Hayden wants to go over there”. “Hayden wants to sit on the chair at the tea party”. In retrospect, one of us should have played outside with him instead.

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Toddler tantrums aside, I really enjoyed seeing the grand opulence of the different rooms, especially the one decorated with tin and aluminium, which were the most expensive metals of their time.

I have a soft spot for blinis (Russian crepes), and our guide agreed to take us to their local blini chain (Теремок, pronounced Teremok). Hayden loved the deep fried cheese, and I ate a feta-herb-ham blini followed by a peach-cottage-cheese blini. Yum yum.

We finished our tour in a very nice government-regulated, brightly lit, souvenir shop. I chose a small painted purple egg pendant (25 euro), and Hayden was given a paint-your-own matrishka doll set as a gift.

Back on the ship, Hayden and I were the only participants in the Family Scrapbooking event at Club Ocean. While I wouldn’t strictly classify his actions as “scrapbooking”, Hayden enjoyed putting all the stickers on the paper, and carefully drawing blue circles around them all, signing his creation with an “H”. We stuck it up on our door outside for all to see – most cruise ship doors and walls are metal and will attract magnets.

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That evening Adrian put Hayden to bed while I went to see Leanne Mitchell, the winner of England’s The Voice. She was charming, humble, funny, endearing, and her singing was phenomenal. Her performance of two of Adele’s songs brought me to tears. I think that she was the best live performance I have ever seen.

Tonight’s towel animal was an angry chick.

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We took advantage of the mid-cruise Wash and Fold Special (US$30) and put all our t-shirts, underwear, swimwear, pyjamas, and shorts in a plastic bag to be washed and returned the next day. The Legend of the Seas does not have a self-serve laundromat.

July 3. Tallinn, Estonia

After the exhausting schedule of St Petersburg, it was splendid to wake up knowing that Tallinn was going to be self-guided and relaxing. Today we would be exploring on our own schedule, seeing as much or as little as we wanted.

While we waited for the majority of the passengers to troop of this ship, we had time for a pleasant sit-down breakfast in the Main Dining Room, and I enjoyed a very fancy serving of rice bubbles followed by pancakes with sugar free syrup. Even though I can have exactly the same meal in the buffet, it always seems to taste nicer with a bit of table service. Paradoxically, I think it’s because the servings are smaller and more widely spaced, giving time for anticipation and without an aftertaste of overindulgence.

The ship docked very close to the World Heritage listed old town, and disembarkation was easy as we left an hour after most people. Even though five cruise ships were tethered at the dock, the old town was relatively uncrowded. The sun came out for the first time on our cruise, and I was wearing a skirt, so today Hayden declared that Mummy was a princess.

We walked to the main square (Raekoja plats), where Hayden “shoo’ed” the pigeons, and I admired the Town Hall built in 1404.

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From there, after a few wrong turns down winding medieval streets, we found the Masters Yard (Vene 6), filled with beautiful hand-crafted items. Hayden and Adrian enjoyed some morning tea from Pierre Chocolaterie while I perused all the delicate wares for sale in the tiny shops surrounding them. I didn’t find anything that needed to come home with me.

We then walked all the way to the top of the high town, which was a bit challenging with the stroller and the very bumpy cobblestones. Hayden napped as we took a tour of the park and the pink exterior of the parliament, and then we went inside to Cafe Koogel Moogel (Toom-Kooli 13) for lunch. I had chosen it because it was recommended on Trip Advisor for families with children. We had a simply but tasty meal of burgers, and then Hayden woke and played in the children’s room upstairs while I had a delicious stack of pancakes and Adrian had a beer.

We meandered down the streets back to the water, Hayden climbing on the stone pigeons and chasing us down the cobblestone streets. Hayden picked out a rainbow reindeer hat (20 euro) and I picked out a woollen purple hat (20 euro) for winter. Adrian did not find any hats that spoke to him.

As we were nearing the ship, Hayden saw a big Ferris wheel, an open-air low-budget version of the enclosed wheel that we rad ridden in Helsinki. “Hayden loves wheels” he said “I wants to go on the wheel”. So before we hopped back on board we took a few spins on it, looking down on our ship from above.

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July 4. Rega, Latvia

A late start today, with a delectable sleep-in and a quick hair-cut and beard trip for Adrian (US$41.30 inc tip).

As we had now spent quite a few days in cities and towns, we decided to search for a bit of green in Rega. After a savory lunch at Queen’s restaurant in the old town, we caught Tram 4 from beside the river (route Centraltirgus – Imanta) and got off at the Botanic Gardens. On the tram, I learned that a 10-ride ticket (5.70 euro) cannot be used for more than one person on one trip.

The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and there was lots of open paths to explore. While Grandma Kay and Pa rested at the cafe, the three of us followed the butterfly signs to the butterfly house. “Let’s find the butterflies” said Hayden. It was quite a small house, but very beautifully laid-out, almost Japanese in its landscaping. The 90% humidity was too much for Adrian, but Hayden and I returned twice more to the butterfly house throughout the afternoon. The butterflies were the largest that I had ever seen, lazily lapping up sugar water from plates and seeking out nectar from all the blossoming flowers. A tiny colourful finch sang while she ate bird-seed from a wooden bird feeder, furry caterpillars carved circular holes in leaves (“That caterpillar is very hungry”), and huge fish peeked out from under a small wooden bridge. Dozens of cocoons were carefully laid out in rows behind a glass screen, concealing the astonishing process of metamorphosis.

Hayden could have stayed at the gardens all day, but the ship’s captain had said to us earlier that if we were going to be late getting back on the boat, we should bring a camera so that we can take a photo of the ship sailing away without us.

We caught the tram back to the city. While we were waiting for our tram, we asked Adrian’s dad to take a photo of us together. Instead, he decided to take a picture of himself.

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The tram arrived a few minutes later. Hayden sat with me, and was very excited to find a little surprise in his bag of toys. (“It’s a gold doubloon!”)

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Once we all descended from the tram, we enjoyed a leisurely 20 minute stroll along the river. It was a very pleasant walk back to the boat, with the skyline of modern Riga on one side of the river, and a few of the last remaining Soviet monuments on the other.

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Hayden likes putting all the Sea Passes in the “entry” machine that goes “ding”, but he doesn’t like it when we put Purell on his hands. “Too messy!”.

As we had an inside cabin, one of our favourite places to relax onboard is up at the Viking Crown bar on the Observation Deck, and the view was especially interesting from Riga. Hayden watched Peppa Pig with some water and cookies, while Adrian read a PhD thesis (which put his bag over the carry-on threshold on the plane – Australian students should follow the Belgian example, and send their examiners small paperback versions, not these huge bricks of A4 pages.). I read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, set during the US slavery abolitionist movement in the 1800s while sipping on a Grand Heart (Barcardi OakHeart Spiced rum, peach schnapps, lime and pineapple juice) in a plastic souvenir glass (US$12.52, inc tip), thinking about the 1:3 ratio of staff to passengers on this ship, and whether that counted as a kind of economic slavery. Handful, the slave in the book, noticed that “There was so much in the world to be had and not had” (p 32), her mistress “was kind to me and she was part of everything that stole my life” (p 172), and yet both slave and mistress were “yearning for a wedge of sky” (p 272).

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We had dinner in the Romeo and Juliet Main Dining Room as soon as it opened at 6pm. I had the olive, eggplant, and tomato tapanade (okay – the olives were a bit overpowering), followed by the turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce (delicious, meat was tender and perfectly cooked), and the creme brule (okay – brule was delicious, I thought there was too much Baileys in the creme), and a Baileys Chocolate Cafe cocktail (delicious, Baileys, coffee, vodka, white creme de cacao, Frangelico, and half & half, US$8.63 inc tip). I had to chase down a cocktail menu because I did not order any alcohol on the first night, so they assumed I would not be drinking any on any subsequent nights either. As we sailed along, we drifted away from the business and residential buildings of Riga, and Pa told us about the many interesting industrial machines. We saw trees being loaded, freshly-delivered coal, and a ship waiting to take on tonnes of grain.

Adrian took Hayden back to the room while I went to see the areal show “Seasons”. The Winter, Spring, and Summer scenes went off without a hitch, but during the Autumn scene, one of the aerialists (the nice one who had waved to Hayden during the vignette performance earlier on in the week), could not get enough bounce in her two elastic bungee ropes to bounce back up to the rope swing at the top. While the other three aerialists effortlessly hooked their knees over the swings and then dropped down, she struggled to get enough height. In the end, she had to hang there helpless as she was pulled up by one of the technical staff. At the 10:15pm performance, she still performed the Winter duet, but there were only three aerialists during the final Autumn performance. On the last day of the cruise, I noticed that they had called in an expert to review the cables and cords.

Tonight’s towel animal was a monkey.

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July 5. Day at Sea, Legend of the Seas, Royal Caribbean

I do like a good day at sea. We started the day with a sleep-in, then met Hayden’s grandparents for a 9am breakfast at the Windjammer. When we left at 9:30, the line was very long indeed.

We had been told that the adults-only indoor solarium pool was open to children between 10:00-12:00 and 14:00-16:00 due to inclement weather. At first Hayden did not want to get into his swimmers and did not want to get in the water, but with some gentle encouragement, he was very happy to play in the shallows of the water. Soon, however, a staff member came and told us that the weather was no longer classified as “inclement”, and the solarium was now an adults-only venue. Interestingly, I think that the solarium and casino are the only adults-only areas of the ship, which is quite a small amount of space compared to some other cruise lines.

We moved into the outdoor pool, and indeed the weather was glorious. Hayden and Adrian had a really joyous time together. Hayden is very nervous near water, but when Adrian is near he really trusts him, and loves jumping and splashing around, and riding on his back. It made me very happy to see the two of them having so much fun together, laughing and splashing. The weather had been a bit chilly for the rest of the week, but today the sun was shining in full force. While the boys played together and Adrian started to teach Hayden to swim, I joined the Walk For Wishes event nearby. A $10 donation bought me a t-shirt signed by the captain, and entry into a four lap (1 mile) walk around deck 10. We learned later that we had earned $1140 for the Make a Wish foundation.

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There was something quite magical about walking around the edge of a ship, surrounded by nothing but clear blue water stretching out to the horizon. As I walked for Make A Wish I thought about John Green’s book The Fault of Our Stars about two smart and well-read teenagers with life-threatening diseases and their Wishes. If you had the opportunity to go anywhere on earth for one week, where would you go, and who would you take, knowing that this might be the one big grand adventure of your life? “It seemed like forever ago, like we’d had this brief but still infinite forever. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities” (page 233).

I am very pleased that Royal Caribbean offers cruise packages as Wishes. I know that my trips to Iceland, Norway, and Alaska have been extraordinary explorations to beautiful otherwordly places, and I am glad that at least some children with life-threatening diseases have the opportunities to experience these places with their loved ones.

We finished up our time in the sun with a restorative soak in the hot-tub, which was set at a cooler temperature than the hot-tub in the solarium area. Even though Hayden had spent two hours in the water, he did not want to get out, even with the promise of lunch. After some tears and a change of clothes into a long-sleeved shirt (“Hayden’s arms are cold”), we sat together at Park Cafe for a light lunch of custom salads, although without the mozzarella from embarkation day.

We went back to our room for a nap – my first of the trip, and Hayden’s first that wasn’t in his stroller. Even Adrian was exhausted enough to close his eyes for a while. After insisting for an hour that he wasn’t sleepy, Hayden then collapsed for a three hour nap, waking up just before dinner time.

For our last meal on the ship I had clam chowder (disappointing, especially as I had amazing memories of it from my recent trip to California), broiled salmon (pretty good, but not amazing like the horseradish encrusted salmon from our first night), and warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream (amazing delicious). We had a different waiter tonight, who simply said “everything’s good, and I’m sure you’ve already decided”, which I preferred to our previous waiter who gave us our menu, and then came back after ten minutes with a long list of recommendations.

Tonight’s towel animal was a penguin.

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We were located on deck 8, in the inside room of 8079. It was a long way from the elevators, but close to a stairway that led directly up to the spa, Park Cafe, and solarium. The outside cabins opposite us were all balcony suits. While I was glad that we didn’t have a balcony due to Hayden’s recent penchant for climbing the rails, some extra space would have been nice. It was a little cramped in our room with the extra crib and the stroller taking up most of the floor space, but overall we didn’t find it unbearable, especially considering the cost of an upgrade. Even though Hayden is not yet three, he is charged as a third adult, rather than a child, and the cost of an extra person also increases with each stateroom category. For me, the price seemed too high for the benefit of a bit of extra space, considering there were so many other venues we could pop out to and find a seat with a great view. I just felt so lucky to be on this cruise in the first place.

July 6. Disembarkation.

We paid US$35 per person for a late checkout, which meant that we could stay on the ship until 2pm, instead of leaving the ship at 9am with most of the passengers. This meant a relatively tranquil table service breakfast with Hayden’s grandparents, and some delicious hot and fluffy buttermilk pancakes. We left our room at 9am, and then relaxed in the Viking Lounge before heading down to the pool. Adrian and I wanted to stay in the hot tub, but Hayden wanted to play with his Daddy in the big pool.

We finally dried off, said “see you soon” to Hayden’s grandparents, and then had a satisfying lunch in the Windjammer Buffet restaurant. I had a really scrumptious make-your-own hamburger, a complementary piece of sushi, and some chocolate chip cookies.

All too soon it was time to farewell the Legend of the Seas and make our way back to Brussels. I had seen two new countries, and Hayden had seen five. It was very special to be able to spend a week watching our son with his grandparents who he usually only sees on FaceTime. We look forward to seeing them in Brussels next week.

Hayden played with his dinosaurs in the taxi back to the airport, chatting happily and loudly while I tried to nap. A two hour direct flight took us back to Brussels, our stroller and luggage were waiting for us, and Pepper and Mint were safe and sound when we returned. The best end to a great holiday.

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After a few days in San Francisco, I caught the Caltrain to Silicon Valley to catch up with some friends and see this strange area for myself.

It was really lovely to spend time with my Australian friends (one couple living in Mountain View, one visiting) and we reminisced about living down the road from each other, and all agreed that the Vietnamese Village Inn makes the best Vietnamese food in the world. It is so sad that we are now all living on different continents, and it might be another eight years until we can all sit down and enjoy a drink and a board-game together again. It made me realise how much I missed the comfort of old friendships, and I wished that I could pick up all these people and relocate them and their amazing children to Brussels.

In some ways, Mountain View feels like a step into the future. Even though I didn’t see a single person wearing Google Glass, there were plenty of smart phones, smart watches, smart cars, smart taxis, and smart homes, and there was an app for everything. The dress code is decidedly casual, and the whole neighbourhood is buzzing with innovation and experimentation.

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It was very strange to see the physical offices of many “cloud” businesses here in Silicon Valley. The abstract concepts of Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, Pixar, salesforce.com, Yahoo!, SurveyMonkey, WebEx, LinkedIn, Yelp, and eBay are made concrete here in Mountain View. In some ways, these brands lost a bit of their magic and glamour for me, when I saw that they were built upon the hard work of actual human people, who still get stuck in traffic and struggle with escalating housing prices. They might have a free bowling alley in their office, but still have expensive child-care and only 15 days of vacation a year. Once again, it did remind me of the great quality of life that we have in Europe. I just wish that we had a few more robots.

Silicon valley

I spent one afternoon at the Computer History Museum. I went on a docent-led tour, and our guide talked about his years programming in FORTRAN in the 1950s and 1960s. He also showed us a 1960s Apollo Guidance Computer logic module, which was used by the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Excursion Module to monitor, steer, and communicate with the guidance system. Astronauts needed about 10,500 keystrokes on the keyboard to complete a lunar mission. They also had on display a 1990s On-Board Computer Block from the Soviet Space Agency’s MIR Space Station.

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Years ago I read a very powerful book published in 1984 called Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. In it he details the Hacker Ethic:

  • Access to anything which might teach you about the world should be unlimited and total.
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority and promote decentralization.
  • People should be judged by their work, not by their degrees, age, race or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.

These ideals, especially “information should be free”, have stayed with me ever since. This book also captured the excitement of programming some of the world’s earliest computers and the sense of discovery and opportunity that accompanied the privilege. For many years, this book fuelled my dream of studying at MIT.

From this book I learned about the evolution from the Tech Model Railroad Club to programming the TX-0 and PDP-1, and the creation of Spacewar! (one of the earliest digital computer games). One of the programmers recalled that he had spent so many nights working on the game that when he walked home one night, night he looked up at the starry sky, and automatically reached for the joystick to move his rocket. It was fun to be able to see the PDP-1 up close and personal.

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The museum has a working RAMAC, PDP-1 and a IBM 1401. It took five years and over 20,000 hours for the restoration team to bring back the 1960s IBM 1401 back to life. The team repair corrosion and rusted transistors, refurbished clutches, bearings, belt, rolling parts, and designed an emulator for the magneto-tape drive. Many of the original IBM customer engineers from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s now work at the Computer History Museum to demonstrate these impressive machines to the next generation. Once a week they fire up the 1401, however this week the multiplication function was not operational, and the machine was not able to implement the program that had been given to it on punch cards. It was interesting to watch the two engineers conduct real-time trouble-shooting of the computer and the program, but after an hour of agony, they decided to call it quits. Luckily a client wasn’t paying the $265 per hour rental fee ($1,600 per hour in today’s dollars) to run these complex calculations.

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The museum also had a temporary exhibit on autonomous cars, including one of the first models of the Google self-driving car. They showed working samples of all the lasers and other sensors, demonstrating that not only can the car identify a cyclist, it can also recognise and instantly respond to the cyclist’s hand signals.

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Even though this area is booming and filled with billionaires, the public transport is terrible. The train from San Francisco only runs once an hour, and to get from Mountain View to the airport, one has to catch four trains. Similarly, to get back to my friends’ place from the museum, I had the choice of a 30 minute walk or a 45 minute bus trip.

In my time in Mountain View I saw Google’s solution to this problem – self-driving cars in the wild. For legal reasons, they still have to have someone sitting in the driver’s seat, but the person is not in control of the car except in emergencies. It is very weird and impressive to be see these vehicles automatically signalling, turning, stopping, and giving way in amongst all the human-driven cars. At the museum I picked up some circuit-board earrings, and a sticker from the museum that said “my next car will be self-driving”. I hope that’s true.

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Another beautiful day in San Francisco with no one to please except myself. Still a bit jet-lagged, I returned to the International House of Pancakes at 6am for a delicious stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes with sugar-free syrup.

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The 28 bus took me though the Presidio, past the Golden Gate Bridge, and to the edge of the Golden Gate Park. My first stop was the California Academy of Sciences. It was a beautiful building, and for a scientist such as myself, it was so uplifting to see the care and craftsmanship that had been put into a building that celebrates and shares our scientific discoveries. My first stop was the penguin feeding of the African Penguins. The penguins are all colour coded, with couples genetically-optimised and then given matching arm-bands. We learned, however, that sometimes the penguins do not heed these suggestions.

The next step was the Planetarium, first a short interactive session explaining one of my favourite quotes from Carl Sagan – “We are all star-stuff” – and then a longer show from the New York Natural History Museum that attempted to explain the enigmatic properties of dark matter and dark energy interspersed with astounding photographs and simulations of the universe. The science is now progressing so quickly that our guide paused the presentation in the middle to update us on new discoveries regarding neutrinos and slug galaxies. They also had several 100kg meteors, and a moon rock from the Taurus-Littrow Valley between the Sea of Serenity and the Sea of Tranquility that was collected during 1972′s Apollo 17 – currently the last manned mission to the moon. Hopefully that will change in my lifetime.

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A trip across the living roof, through the rainforest habitat, down into the aquarium, and then it was time for a stroll through the park and up the infamous hills to UCSF. I met up for a Starbucks with an old lab-mate from my Seattle days, both of us exchanging news and amazement at the five years that have passed since we saw each other last. She has remained in academia, and is pursuing intriguing research in virology and immunology while enjoying all that San Francisco has to offer. I left her to return to her FACS, while I walked down the hills back to the park.

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The Japanese Tea Garden was even more beautiful than I had expected. While it was smaller than the Japanese Gardens in Hasselt, it was much more expertly landscaped, with various elevations, screens, and trees enabling one to find many spots of seclusion and tranquility away from the crowds.

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As I had no toddler to entertain or companions to consider, I spent a few hours meandering through the gardens, sitting in the sunshine and listening to waterfalls, watching the squirrels climb up the trees and eat with their tiny hands. The weather was perfect, and I sat on stone benches soaking in the warmth and reading the plaques about the various centuries-old structures and sculptures that fill the gardens.

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I ended my visit to the gardens with a purchase of some delicate owl and frog chopsticks and ordered some matcha and daifuku. Matcha is a finely milled green tea, and daifuki (literally “great luck”) is a cake made with glutinous rice stuffed with sweetened red azuki bean paste. The tea was startlingly green and perfectly brewed, and the daifuki was surprisingly delicious. The rice exterior was soft and matte, and the interior paste intriguing and enjoyable. I was very appreciative of having the time to sit and be present in the moment, temporarily free of work requests and parenting vigilance, free to sit and soak in the beauty of my surroundings and the flavours before me.

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