Behind the Smiling Faces

By on October 7, 2016

By Pamela Lovegren−

The marketing department of Viking River Cruise made a brilliant move to advertise during the Downton Abbey PBS Masterpiece series. Viewers who appreciate the setting of the show will be enthralled with the “Grand European Tour”, and other Viking itineraries, while relishing the romance of traveling on waterways via longboats. After being introduced to Viking River Cruise through their advertisements, I chose to experience this great journey full of inspiring European destinations, fascinating people and cultural heritages.  

Just as there are intriguing people among the complex lives at Downton Abbey, fascinating individuals exist in the extraordinary multifaceted life on a ship. While interacting with the crew I discovered unpretentious people rich in character, full of compassion and carrying on legendary family traditions.  

vrc-pic-leonard-and-meThe remarkable Program Director on our ship, Leonard, is witty, clever, a wealth of knowledge, full of fascinating legends and above all genuine. Leonard absolutely loves what he does. He is highly respected and at 47 knows he has found his niche in life.

Growing up in Romania, Leonard resided with his parents during the week. On weekends he stayed with his cherished aunt who never had children of her own. Her flat was located in communist Romania, but her job allowed her to buy all the latest technology like a color TV and VHS player. From a kid’s perspective this was the best of all worlds. Their relationship was so close that when she passed away, she bequeathed her house to him.

Leonard appreciates his home, but while most people talk about their dream house Leonard envisions a “dream castle”. That’s dreaming big! His favorite privately owned castle sits on absolutely stunning property high above the Rhine river in Niederheimbach, Germany. Leonard shared a fascinating aspect of castle living. You are not allowed to make structural changes. Consequently you have to adapt your 21st century life style to a medieval way of living. This is not a deterrent when you have a heart longing to dwell in a castle. img_2047-dream-castle

And Leonard has heart, pouring abundant energy and passionate enthusiasm into his 106 guests and 53 crew. His positive outlook was contagious. I looked forward to his daily inspirational quotes like “Life doesn’t get easier you get stronger” and “You never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Wherever he was and whatever he was creating for us, he made life enjoyable.  

Leonard has an outgoing, magnetic personality and everyone on the ship knew him. But I wonder how many guests noticed the golden nugget among us named MirMir. She was one of the quieter crew members with a peaceful aura and zest for life. Her img_1718-mirmirhome is in the Philippines. As our steward, she cared for our stateroom with the pride of a five star hotel.

MirMir has one son who is a skilled computer technician, age 27, and taller than her. When they are in public together he asks her not to put an arm around him. Why? Because MirMir looks so young that even at 47 people think she is his girlfriend instead of his mom. I wish I had that challenge! 

One morning she came to the stateroom with a beaming smile on her face and told me it was her birthday. When her boss and many employees on the ship wished her a happy birthday she was astonished since she had mentioned it to no one. In fact, employees gave her a thoughtful present, some cash to go shopping. The next day we pulled into the Wurzburg, Germany port full of wonderful shops.  MirMir was given time off and she bought a new pair of jeans and several tops. She was so excited she posted it all on Facebook so her family and friends back home could know about her fantastic day!

MirMir works from March to mid-November. Towards the end of our travels she mentioned she has her own housemaid. Our Stateroom Attendant has her own housemaid? I had to know the story. I found out MirMir shares a home with her parents and a family of six dogs. Her mother and father need assistance with the housekeeping and pets. To help her extended family when she is away, she found an 18 year old girl to assist. Abandoned as a small child, this teenager has minimal education. MirMir trained her to take care of pets and a home. She is fortunate MirMir is teaching her job skills. This gives her opportunities she would never have had otherwise. I am simply humbled and inspired by MirMir’s compassion and ingenuity.

In contrast to petite MirMir, I noticed a man right away who looks like a pillar of strength, tall among men, and when he spoke everyone listened. This man, Captain Anne Sijbranda, has been sailing his whole life. His father, mother and both grandparents were captains. He was actually born on a ship like his mom, dad and brother. His initial introduction to sailing came through working cargo ships and eventually passenger ships. The Captain is known for his great expertise and courageous ability to handle tough river situations.

Captain Sijbranda has participated in an open end contract with Viking for over 16 years. He states, “If I get tired of it then I leave”. Fortunately for Viking he is loyal and very much enjoys sailing for them. Leonard, the Program Director, calls him “the Hero Captain not just the Best Captain”. 

img_1606-shipOur Captain proved he’s a hero in Passau, known as the City of Three Rivers, where there is a confluence of the Inn, Ilz and Danube rivers. The morning we arrived it was easy to wander the cobblestone streets. But an unusual amount of rain fell and by afternoon the walkways and banks where we strolled earlier were flooded by the overflowing rivers. The next bridge to sail under was a historic railroad crossing built lower than other bridges on that section of waterway. Arrangements were made to bus passengers to our next town so we would not miss any tours. Captain Sijbranda made precise calculations for adding water to ballasts tanks in order to lower our Viking Lif longboat in the river. We were the last vessel to make it under the bridge that day.    


img_1608-captainThe Captain works March to the end of October piloting the ship for four weeks on and two weeks off.  When he is not on the ship he flies to his home in Austria. Fortunate for him, the love of his life works with the Water Police, so she understands his unusual schedule. 

Sagas are waiting to be revealed all around us. Dare to be curious. You will discover intriguing people, such as Leonard, who are genuine to their core pouring life into others, compassionate souls like MirMir, and individuals similar to the Captain continuing on in legendary family traditions. What fascinating stories are waiting to be discovered from the people in your life?


Pamela Lovegren
Business Manager / Travel Editor
Pamela’s expertise flows from building her own successful business to guiding small to mid-size family owned companies. She analyzes business structure, is a diplomatic negotiator, identifies operational issues, and implements effective resolutions to lead a firm on a path to excellence. Her experience ranges from resort management, leadership conferences, property management and business consulting to extensive traveling and travel editor of this online publication. Pamela shares the vision of Carol Doyel, Founder of  to celebrate and encourage women of 50+ who desire to live life with spirit and passion each and every day.

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Behind the Smiling Faces