Corkscrew-Balloon European Tour 2001

Part I: Nordic Screws, Nordic Maids

Paul's Journal — May 23-27, 2001

Between Alf's Short Visit to Florida and Spargelfest

See also Alf's Corkscrew Conference Subplot

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.

-- Jerome K. Jerome

It begins today: This afternoon, Annie and I will hop on board a Scandinavian Air 767 and head for Copenhagen! I am ready for this trip and for its leisure, since I do indeed have plenty of work that I will be leaving behind.

Here is our plan: Alf, Watcharee, and Cindy are flying from Florida on Swissair. The will arrive just a bit after noon tomorrow. Annie and I will drop from the sky (slowly, we hope) about an hour later. At the airport we will meet Mike and the fabulous Screw Crew, and we will proceed by land-based vehicles to Esbjerg, Denmark.

Esbjerg is to be our base of operations through the weekend. Alf will be attending some sort of Scandinavian corkscrew conference. The rest of us will be loose on the town. Weather permitting, we will all try to do some ballooning ... probably in the evening, although it could be in the early morning. I expect morning comes VERY early this time of year in Denmark. Here in Washington, it begins to get light just after 4:30 now ... and Esbjerg is considerably farther north.

That reminds me: Although the flight from Seattle to Copenhagen is an "overnight" one, last night's sunset was the last one I will see until after we've checked into our hotel in Esbjerg Thursday night. Thanks to polar routing and the time of year, there will be daylight for us during our entire "night" flight.

Next week, we will begin our southward movement, heading down the autobahn through Germany. We'll proceed at a leisurely pace, and within a couple of days we will arrive near Stuttgart, at the home of our good friend Hermann Sieger. Regular journal readers will remember Hermann: He is with us every year at the January balloon festival in Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland. It will be fun to do some ballooning around his home ... and we're all looking forward to seeing his new personal auto museum!

We'll stay in Hermann's area for a few more days, and then we'll proceed southward again until we reach Bern, Switzerland. Here, Alf, Mike and I will be in more familiar territory, for we have stayed at the Bellevue Palace Hotel and ballooned in the Emmenthal region of Switzerland before. It will be new for Annie, Cindy, and Watcharee, though.

That's the plan! In a couple of weeks we'll catch planes home. Tune in here for periodic updates as the actual story unfolds. The next update will be here sometime on Thursday ... assuming Internet connections work from the hotel in Esbjerg!

Thursday, May 24, 2001

Everything is proceeding according to plans! Our plane landed a bit early at 1:00 p.m. The Florida travelers (Alf, Watcharee and Cindy) had already been shepherded through the airport process, thanks to the able hands of the Screw Crew. After claiming our amazing quantities of baggage, Annie and I had "nothing to declare," and we wheeled everything out and turned that over to the able hands of the crew as well. We then piled into two Previas for the ride to Esbjerg. I went with Alf, Watcharee, Mike and legendary crew driver Dan "the Dent Man"; in the other van, Cindy and Annie were turned over to the able hands of the crew.

The drive to Esbjerg took a few hours. We lingered for a bit at a very leisurely McDonald's, where we sampled our first Danish food: fries and ice cream. This hit the spot. We were all quite impressed with Danish mayonnaise technology: Taking a cue from the delivery systems used for Tuborg and Carlsberg, the restaurant offered its patrons stylish pressurized condiment-spouting "taps." Once having filled the usual little paper reservoir cups (and pausing only briefly to let the head settle), the hungry tourist can proceed to the pleasures of fry dipping and swirling.

We arrived in Esbjerg at 5:00 p.m. and settled in at the Scandic Hotel. We all have fabulous harbor views from our rooms. More importantly, we're able to plug our notebook computers into various outlets for power and phone connections with the rest of the world. The phone adapters in use here are unusual: They are of a style unique to Denmark and ... Portugal. We are all puzzled as to what historical quirk resulted in these two nations making this telephonic stand together.

High on the agenda was distribution of the new T-shirts, polo shirts and hooded sweatshirts that had been specifically designed for our "Touring Europe 2001" trip. Annie brought two huge duffel bags containing these freshly minted items, and upon arriving in her room she immediately set about sorting them and tossing them to the waiting crew members. You will be seeing these outfits quite a bit in the flight reports that lie ahead.

At 8:00 we gathered, with our usual high degree of organization, in the Scandic lobby, whence we wound through a couple of Esbjerg back alleys and into the nearby Italian restaurant where Mike had arranged for us to eat. The lovely blond staff took our orders; the crew brought with them a healthy appetite. The most popular choices included Number 16 (chicken) and Number 17 (beef). Several people accidentally ordered Greek salads; these turned out to be spectacular. If we return to this restaurant, I will have one. My choice was Number 42 (an "Oslo" pizza). Since this is as close as I will be to Norway for some time, I thought I should take this opportunity to connect in some small way with my ancestral land.1

The sun is very persistent here this time of year. There was still some light outside after 10:00 p.m. Eventually, we got up from the table and wandered out into the quiet streets of Esbjerg. Several of us went back to the Scandic for sleep. The indefatigable crew, however, headed to unknown alternative destinations, where their ongoing probe into Denmark's natural resources would, they hoped, continue to push the frontiers of international research.

I was asleep shortly before midnight.

1 Hi Pauline!

Friday, May 25, 2001

As evening departs late here, morning arrives early. The sun, just months ago so hesitant to linger, seems determined to spend all its available time shining on Scandinavia. "All is reborn; I have returned; I share my warmth with you. Skôl!" This morning began to experience light around 4:00. The damn birds kicked in at 4:05. They quieted down again around 6:00, but what good does that do?

Here's something I didn't know until I arrived here: Denmark is the world's largest exporter of frozen human sperm. This modern industry carries forward, in an updated fashion, some of the area's well-known traditions from a thousand years ago. Of course, in today's faster-paced world, where the personal touch is so often omitted, the Danes have largely discontinued the home delivery and personal installation service they provided during Viking days to those in neighboring lands.

It is a spectacular blue-sky day. It's starting out rather windless, too. Of course, any flight would not be until late evening, and so it's difficult for the untrained eye merely looking out a window or the moist finger held aloft to know whether balloon aviation might occur later ... but we must go into this with optimism. Mike said yesterday that it was possible we'd benefit this weekend from some kind of anomalously calm weather system. We shall see.

Did I mention, during our drive from Copenhagen to Esbjerg, that the entire landscape here is peppered with windmills? As we cruised down the highway, they were all spinning away contentedly ... cleanly and efficiently generating huge amounts of electricity. (Messrs. Bush and Cheney would be horrified upon seeing all these towers, which ultimately must somehow be taking money out of the pockets of their oily cronies in Texas. Perhaps a "strategic defense mishap" of some sort could correct this revenue leak ... maybe a little demonstration of nuclear energy in the windmill fields would clear things up for Denmark. ... "Where's that button, Dick?")

From our perspective, the windmills' presence suggests dangers of other sorts. My first thought (keep in mind I was a little woozy from the flight) was "We'd better be careful not to fly too close to one of those suckers! They look kind of sharp!" Mike clarified for me the other problem, which the presence of all these windmills suggests to the especially astute observer: Hey, there must be a lot of wind around here!

Anyway, as I said, there's a chance that there will be some abatement in the wind during our stay here, and we might be able to do what we largely came here to do: Ride the Screwmaids over Denmark. Thus, for these few days, we join oily Texans, Saddam Hussein, and others of their ilk in hoping that the windmills slow down and stop. The oil ilk's "ka-ching!" is our peaceful drift through Danish skies. Mariah can resume her blowing on Sunday.1

More later!

1 My reference, of course, is to Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon and has nothing to do with any recording artist.

Throughout the morning, we were largely left to our own devices. I went downstairs at about 8:00 for breakfast: the pickled herring and accoutrements that I love! No nasty bacon and eggs, no crunchy cereal ... just the good stuff!

Later, we wandered around town. Esbjerg has the longest pedestrian-only street in Denmark, and the shoppers and walkers were out in full force. It was a perfect day for it. I snapped a few photos and soaked up the atmosphere.

At noon, we met downstairs in the lobby. Alf had corkscrew convention obligations, so he and Watcharee (plus two crew members) went elsewhere. Cindy, Annie, Mike and I went with the rest of the crew to Ribe. This town is just a short drive from Esbjerg, but it's a shift of several hundred years. Indeed, Ribe is well over 1000 years old, and it was quite the hub of activity during the Middle Ages. Its place in the spotlight was largely diminished in the 17th century, as Copenhagen's star rose. (Way to mix those metaphors, Paul!) Ribe's importance further declined in the 19th century, when its surrounding area was lost to Germany in the war of 1864. Today, however, it remains a beautiful medieval village, with 560 buildings included in a preservation project.

We walked around town over cobblestones, exploring the narrow streets and the boat-lined river. After Mike sorted through the offerings of a hat shop and made his selection, we settled in for lunch at a table outside the Hotel Dagmar ... the oldest hotel in Denmark. This was quite a delightful place, and our waitress Mieke took good care of us. Many of us had tuna salads; the crew chose lunch specials.

After lunch we drove back to an interesting set of statues near Esbjerg: Man Meets Sea. These fellows ... four of them, seated and looking out across the water, are quite impressive. I'm not entirely what their story is. My guidebook on Denmark fails to mention them, and the only plaque at the site merely lists credits for the contributors. We spent a bit of time walking around the area, enjoying the view of the Men and the view of the Sea.

After returning to the hotel, Cindy took a quick nap and I did a quick email check. Then I woke Cindy up and we walked into town, where an outdoor cafe satisfied our al fresco wine and Irish coffee needs. We got back just in time to head to the field for the Screwmaid inflation.

Tonight we would not fly, at least in the usual sense. Instead, Alf invited the participants in the 8th Annual General Meeting of Helix Scandinavica (the well-known corkscrew society) to join us on the field for some tethered ascents. As that group was still at its scheduled dinner, we had time for a leisurely inflation. This was the first time out of the freezer for the Screwmaids since their last flight in Chateau d'Oex back in January, and they needed to have their internal parts tweaked a bit upon their departure from Cryogenia. The crew untangled things that had become tangled and rewove things that had become unwoven.

After a while, two large taxi vans appeared, laden with Scandinavian corkscrew collectors. At this point, the inflation began in earnest. The Screwmaids looked as lovely as ever, and as always, they looked happy to be released from their bag, like genies from a bottle.

With the tether lines set, Mike began taking basket loads of passengers skyward. It was a wonderfully festive occasion, and we all had even more fun than we expected. Alf, Watcharee, Annie, Cindy and I stayed on the ground, just watching the balloon rise several times with first-time balloonists. After the corkscrew society members had all flown -- some more than once -- Esbjergers who happened to be at our inflation site also climbed aboard for tethered ascensions. It is quite possible that none of these people had ever been in a hot air balloon before, and dozens of them all had this new world opened to them in the course of the evening. We all had a wonderful time sharing this experience with them!

Go to Esbjerg First Flights photo album.

At the completion of the corkscrew society's flights, Alf presented each of the new balloon veterans with commemorative Screwmaid Stickers. The festivities reached their apogee, and by this time everyone was riding on a wave of wonderful fun. Someone mentioned that next year's meeting of the society would be held in Oslo, and there arose an immediate cry that Alf and the Screwmaids must make plans to come to that event as well. And so it is that preliminary plans are, indeed, now underway ....

The days are so long now in Denmark, because of the time of the year and, of course, the latitude. By the time the balloon was deflated, it was nearly 10:30. We headed back to the hotel and had a very nice dinner that began at about 11:15 and ended at about 1:00 a.m.

And so, after getting up Friday morning at about 4:00 a.m., I ultimately returned to bed just a bit before 2:00 a.m. It was a very long day, but a completely wonderful one, filled with the stuff of marvelous memories that will live forever.

Saturday, May 26, 2001

This was a morning for catching up on sleep, at least a little. Cindy had suggested last night that we should go downstairs for coffee at 9:30, but I was sure that I'd be up and done with breakfast long before then. Well, as it turned out ... NOT! Although I woke at 8:17, I was dead tired, and I just went back to sleep. At 9:40 my eyes opened again; although I was still tired, I leapt from bed in order to carpe the diem. After a quick shower, I was knocking on Cindy's door. She had slept late, too. I went downstairs for a few bites of herring, and I brought a pot of coffee back upstairs to share.

Today's agenda took us to the little island of Fanø, just a 20-minute ferry ride from the Esbjerg docks. We arrived at the ferry just as it was loading, and we were able to drive right on. Among the other vehicles traversing the water with us was a beautiful 1948 Cadillac, decorated with lace for a wedding in which it was participating. We admired the stylish lines of the car, its early V-8 engine, and especially its very cool hood ornament.

Upon arriving on the island, we drove from the north end to the south. There, we had lunch reservations at a wonderful restaurant called Sønderbro Kro. Like most of the buildings on the island, it had a thatched roof that sloped down sharply to side walls that were only about five feet high. Inside, everything looked very traditional. Some of us were reminded of the farmhouse where we ate outside Lillehammer, Norway, last fall.

For lunch, we fell largely into two camps: those who ordered the traditional Danish Bakschuld, and those who ordered the special meal of the day. At my table, all four of us took the latter course. We began with a marvelous salad that was topped with a prosciutto-like Danish ham and parmesan cheese. This was followed by a marvelous salmon dish. We were quite happy.

Outside the restaurant, near the water, some reminders of the early 1940s remained: a mine and a bunker. After we had some ice cream at a nearby shop, we climbed into the Previas and went for a "beach drive" that ran the length of the island on the west side. The beach is huge, with a broad expanse of flat sand that led up to dunes; it is a very popular place for kite flying. Scattered along the beach, where the flat met the dunes, were concrete bunkers facing across the water toward England. Built by the Germans during their occupation of Denmark in World War II, these rough structures were now in poor shape, most of them sinking and tilting as a result of 60 years of shifting sands.

We caught the ferry back to Esbjerg and had a couple of hours to relax before we were scheduled to reunite for a possible balloon flight. Through the day, we had been watching the weather and wondering whether we'd be able to fly. It at least appeared to be a possibility.

We met downstairs at 8:30 and headed for the launch spot. It was a nice location, close to the water and situated so that the prevailing winds would not carry us out to see. The only problem was that the field was a bit small. As a result, the balloon tossed and turned a bit during the later stages of inflation. Indeed, there was much more tossing about than I have ever seen before a launch. I thought for sure that we wouldn't be able to fly because of the apparent force of the winds ... but we did!

Watcharee decided to ride with the chase, but we had three additional passengers from the Scandinavia corkscrew group, so we totaled seven passengers. Our flight took us right over the city. The breeze was strong, and we skimmed across the rooftops quickly. Leaving the city and continuing south, we entered the Land of Windmills. There, just beyond a large bank of them, the chase caught up with us and we set down in a nice grassy field. Given the speed at which we were cruising, the crew did a remarkable job of bringing us to a quick stop. We only dragged them about 20 yards through the field before their dug-in heels defeated the forces of the wind. It was a quick flight, only about 30 minutes long, but it was quite satisfying, and the Screwmaids were able to add another virtual country stamp to their virtual passports.

We had another 11:00 dinner, and then we were off to bed.

Sunday, May 27, 2001


Today was spent in transit ... south from Esbjerg, across the German border, through lots and lots of highway construction and other impediments, and finally to Norten-Hardenberg, a small town outside Göttingen, Germany. There, we checked into a lovely inn that sits on the valley floor beneath the ruins of an old castle.

Tomorrow will be another travel day. But in the meantime ... The men's room for the restaurant where we ate tonight contained a bathroom fixture that I'd never seen before. I found this tremendously exciting, for how many times in one's life does one discover a new bathroom fixture? In my experience, such events are really quite rare. Anyway, you can see it on the right-hand side of this photo:

Mystery Fixture

Next: Spargelfest

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