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PLAY DIXIE FOR ME: Russian bandsmen.
  • PLAY DIXIE FOR ME: Russian bandsmen.

The Observer is just back from a dream trip — a Baltic cruise in the midst of a typically searing Arkansas August.

It was cooler there than here. But not as cool as The Observer had hoped. It was unseasonably warm in Copenhagen and a $200-a-night hotel room had no air conditioning. It needed it. The cruise ship’s air conditioning was delightfully chilly, we are happy to report.

Here’s what we learned on our summer vacation.

The Americanization of even former Eastern bloc nations continues apace. The ubiquitous food in every port — Warnemunde, Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Visby, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen — is not just the McDonald’s hamburger. It is the chicken Caesar salad. And nachos. We darn near ordered a plateful of nachos in Estonia they looked so good.

The dollar is not worthless but it is heading in that direction. And the social democracies of Scandinavia exact a heavy toll for sinning ways — like drinking beer. A glass of local draft cost $9 in even modest outdoor cafes.

St. Petersburg — a vast city with miles of canals lined by palaces of the czarist era and monumental structures of all sorts — was the highlight of the trip. It’s a frenetic city, westernizing rapidly and on the make. But there’s an enormous gap between the rising capitalist class and many plainer folk. Every public monument seemed to have a small brass band on hand. The members wore tatty band uniforms from long ago and played snatches of familiar tunes for coin offerings. American-looking tourists typically were greeted with a few bars of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” We didn’t know whether to be amused or insulted when, on leaving a van to tour a vast summer palace outside town, the bandsmen took one look at The Observer and struck up “Dixie.”



Coming back to Arkansas from vacation can be tough, especially if you’ve spent time in cooler mountains away from newspapers, radios and televisions (different Observer speaking here), where the only real racket was made by katydids.

A chronicle of the first 24 hours after we left the mountains:

1. Cross the Memphis bridge and stop at the Welcome to Arkansas rest stop in West Memphis. Everything but the plumbing in the bathroom is broken. Welcome. 2. Go to work. See firefighters and police rescue drunk from bench in downtown LR in searing heat — exactly what we saw the day we left town. 3. Catch up on the news. Murder rate has hit previous record with several months in year to go; cracked pipeline has made gas even more expensive; the Middle East is up in flames; a couple at Leo’s restaurant has been attacked because they are bi-racial. 4. Leave office to register child at Central High, burn hand on brass door handle it’s so hot. 5. Sometime in the night: Friend’s car parked in front of The Observer’s house is broken into.

Makes you want to fly away. But …

The next 24 hours: Great Britain reveals new bomb threat to flights to the U.S.; air travel turns into a nightmare.



The Observer is so used to being misled these days that it’s a real pleasure to find that some words mean exactly what they say.

The Observer took a weekend to go camping and canoeing in North Arkansas, not far from Mammoth Spring. Sure enough, Mammoth Spring the town is built around a mammoth spring.

And this mammoth spring feeds the Spring River, another accurate appellation. The beautiful thing about Mammoth Spring and the Spring River, besides being so darn honest, is that the water is plentiful and cold, even in August.

On the drive back to Little Rock, The Observer paid more attention to the names of the towns we passed through.

Velvet Ridge: “Velvet” may be pushing it, but we see what you’re getting at. Evening Shade: We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Ash Flat, Cave City: If you say so.

Bald Knob: None of our business.




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