A Striking Beauty

“Beautiful!” I said.  “Incredible!”

Reclining in a commercial-grade lazy-boy, staring through a huge, panoramic window onto the icy waters of the Alaskan fiord slipping past the ship, I was halfway through a herbal-oil scalp massage my wife had talked me into—an experience I had stoutly resisted, but to no avail.

The sun was gleaming off the water, off the glacier, off the long, blonde hair of my Swedish masseuse hovering over me.  Her name was Inga—short for Ingeborg she told me when we’d been introduced.  My wife was in a similar chair in the cubicle next to mine, the two of us separated by a thin privacy wall.

A striking beauty, Inga was exactly the type I’d have assumed would be working in a shipboard spa.  Taller than I, shapely in her white salon dress, she gazed directly at me through green eyes lit from within.  Her smile would have dazzled the most jaded of men.

As I’d settled into my chair, my mind had raced off in all directions.  This lovely vision was undoubtedly in her late-twenties, embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, probably searching, even if leisurely, for a husband of means, a rich widower who might endow her with everything she could ask for.

The warm oil she’d poured on my scalp, and the sensuous fingers working it in, further inflamed my imagination.  I knew it could never be I she would settle on; after all, I was four inches shorter and several million dollars shy of the mark.  Plus, I was already married—happily, I firmly reminded myself.

Despite the magnificent view through the window, I felt my eyes closing as Inga worked her magic on my scalp, my neck, my shoulders.  I’d undoubtedly have drifted off into who-knows-what erotic imaginings if she hadn’t begun talking, her voice a dusky alto, her accent delightful.

“I love this job,” she said, “especially on this ship, and on this voyage.  The scenery is magnificent.”

“How long have you been doing it?” I asked, eager to keep hearing her voice.

“Not long,” she said.  “I found I couldn’t stay home alone after my husband died, and this was something I always fancied doing.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said automatically.  And I was—and surprised, too, to hear she was a widow at such a young age.  “How long were you married?”

“Thirty years,” she said.

Thirty years?  I gave my head a mental shake.

“He was a partner in a large firm,” she went on.  “His partners bought his shares from me, so I am financially independent.  My youngest son is in medical school in London, my oldest is a commercial pilot, and neither one needs their mother anymore.  So here I am, on my own, free as a bird.”

My mind was frantically doing the math.  A son in med school would have to be at least twenty-four, so even if she’d had two kids by the time she was twenty, she’d still be in her mid-forties—maybe even early-fifties!  And being wealthy in her own right, she was likely in no hurry to tie herself down to one man.  This woman, if so inclined, would have no shortage of companionship. 

I felt her warm breath in my ear, interrupting my thoughts.  “Oh, look!” she said.  “You are so lucky!  Many people never get to see this!” 

She moved closer to the window, and I saw a pod of orcas, seeming to race the ship up the fiord, leaping and twisting and falling back, their sparkling splashes transforming glassy sunlight into shattered shards. 

“Brad!” my wife called from the other cubicle.  “Are you watching this?”

Indeed I was.  The whales, a jumble of white-and-black juggernauts, were actually moving faster than we were.  Inga, her hands splayed on the glass, smiled over her shoulder at me, lighting my soul.

“Beautiful!”  I said.  “Incredible!” 

And they were—the whales certainly, and Inga most definitely—a tableau etched unforgettably on my memory.

I looked into Inga’s green eyes for the last time as we shook hands while my wife settled the cost at the desk.  “I hope you will enjoy the rest of your voyage,” she said.  “Thank you for sailing with us.”  And with that, she was gone.

Over drinks on the lido deck later, my wife asked if I’d enjoyed myself. 

“I did,” I said.  “You were right about the massage.  Did you like it?”

“For sure!” my wife said.  “Karin, my masseuse, was delightful.  And what a treat it was to see the orcas!”

“Yeah,” I said, reliving the window-scene in my mind.  “By the way, how old would you think my masseuse is?”

“She’s twenty-eight,” my wife said.

“That’s what I thought!” I exclaimed.  “But she’s in her late-forties, at least, maybe early-fifties.  She has a son in med school in London, and another son who’s a pilot.  I can’t believe she’s that old!”

“Yeah, we heard her telling you about herself,” my wife said.  “But Karin told me it’s just a story Inga tells to ward off all the older men.  She’s actually twenty-eight and single!”

“A story?” I whispered.  “Older men?”

Cruisin’ Down the River

Cruisin’ down the river/On a Sunday afternoon…

That old song has been running through my mind this past week as my wife and I, in the company of good friends, have been cruising the rivers of Belgium and The Netherlands. Aboard a luxurious riverboat, we’ve visited several ports—Amsterdam, Hoorn, Arnhem, Antwerp, Rotterdam—all of which have offered up their unique charms.

History is everywhere around us, in town squares dating back to the 15th century, in cathedrals still calling the faithful to worship, in castles forlornly standing watch over long-lost fiefdoms. Even the cemeteries have their tales to tell to any who care to stroll their grounds, reading epitaphs on crumbling headstones.

More recent history is in evidence at Arnhem, site of a failed offensive against Nazi forces by the Allies in 1944 (and subsequently portrayed in the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far). The famous John Frost bridge, destroyed by the Germans to disrupt the Allies’ supply lines, once more spans the Nederrijn River, testament to the resilience of the Dutch people who welcomed the liberating forces in 1945.

It is Kinderdijk, however, that has proven the most fascinating. Nineteen windmills, most constructed during the 1700’s, one in the 1400’s, still perform their essential function of pumping water from canals draining the countryside into sluices that take it over the dikes and into the Lek River. The land here is four metres below sea level.

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Each windmill is inhabited and operated by a family selected from a waiting list of more than two hundred. Someone must be on site to monitor the operation whenever the vanes are turning, but many of the residents have day-jobs in addition to their windmill duties. Accessibility to each structure is by boat, or via narrow footpaths, so cars are left in a communal parking lot when people come home.

Quarters are cramped inside, with very steep, narrow stairs leading up from level to level. Were I to live there, I’d need a hard hat to protect my head from the many protrusions and low sills. Windows are small, so much of the interior is dark, although electric lighting has improved the situation. In the olden days, before the installation of running water and sewage capabilities, residents shared their accommodation with rats, and shaved their children’s hair to counter lice.

Each of the four vanes, or wings, is a latticework structure, with fabric sails attached. When the wind is slight, the operator must climb the wings to unfurl the sails, in order to increase the velocity of the spinning wings; when the wind increases, the sails must be furled again. Each wing is stopped when it’s pointing to the ground, in order that it may be climbed. It is not a quick process.

The wings must also be rotated around the windmill to take advantage of the direction of the wind. A complicated construct of chains and pulleys allows the operator to do that, turning the thatched-roof cap of the windmill through 360 degrees until the optimal position is found. The procedure is virtually the same as that performed in the 18th century.

Up close, the structures look ungainly, ridiculous even. If function matched form, they’d have been abandoned long ago. But they’re still here, and still doing the job of keeping the sea at bay, as they’ve done for almost 300 years.

Even so renowned a warrior as Don Quixote could not shut them down.