Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “St. Peterburg”

From Russia with Love – Day 6 – St. Petersberg finale

[Note: I was reviewing my notes, and discovered I had skipped our last day in St. Petersburg - sorry for time warp!]

Today started early : Alarm at 7:30 AM for bus departure at 9 to take us for our Hermitage tour.

Mom agreed  to use a  wheelchair reluctantly but very glad of it by the time the two hour tour was over .  We had access to the elevators instead of the stairs, got preferential deference from the 30-odd Japanese tourists who were grouped on our bus – they were charmed by my Shibuya jacket and   my three sentences of Japanese.  They beckoned us to the front of the crowd for each of the picture stops, insisted we get ahead in the loo for access to the handicapped stall – It is good to be a dowager.  I got all the privileges as the designated pusher.

I didn’t have my camera at the Hermitage, but Duke Zoran – entertainer on the cruise ship – took many pix, including the Return of the Prodigal Son, which was one of my favorites also (parental love, sibling rivaly).  Other faves: Raphael’s amazing ceiling frescoes of God creating the Heavens and the Earth (so sweeping and dynamic – conveys a real sense of the Power that created all we know), Titian’s “Danae” (an orgasm in progress – makes Rembrandt’s painting of the same subject a few rooms later look positively prudish) – and a bunch of Pisarro’s and Picasso’s that we had to zoom by as our time was running out.

The Monet’s and Degas’s were B level, the Gauguins were more interesting to me than those at the Louvre.  It was all a bit overwhelming – especially in the context of the incredibly ornate, marble-columned, gilt chandeliered, parquetry-floored Winter Palace and Hermitage rooms.  Oh yeah, there were some da Vinci’s and Fra Lippo Lippi – just more than you could stop to take in.

Back at the boat, we had our first served lunch rather than the buffet – delicious salad, beautifully served – irresistible desserts. Back in our spacious suite, Mom napped while  I struggled to send a simple email – it seems Hotmail is technically challenged in exotic locales.

So I vented my frustration with a brisk walk along the English Embankment.  Oh, how good it felt to walk at rated speed after several days of accommodating Mom’s tentative pace!  I stormed along, found my tension easing, and was able to come up with some alternative communication strategies (Facebook!  Mom’s gmail account!).

The Engllish Embankment where we were docked was easy distance from St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the big civic park which also houses the iconic statue of Peter the Great commissioned by Catherine.  I saw children somersaulting in the park, saw an intrepid 5-year-old scaling the Thunderstone and then sliding down as if it were playground equipment. (It does have potential as a slide – see photo from rear above.) There were brides and grooms canoodling in the grass for photographers and relatives; I used my odd rubles in the W.C.; I struck up some conversations… a fine liberation!

5:00: Lifeboat drill.  An example of “First  tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them”.  We lined up in our orange life vests at our muster stations and received our safety instructions (if you see someone fall overboard, throw a life preserver and holler “Man overboard!”  If you see a fire, push the red fire alarm button nearest you and holler “Fire!”)

6PM – we launch from the dock. Slowly, slowly, we edge away from the pier, turn end for end, sail out past the mothballed submarine, the tall ship used for training Russian naval cadets, the container port.  We can see rain sweeping up over St. Petersburg behind us, but we are just ahead of it.  West to Finland!

Dinner at “Il Terrazo” – the Terrace café reconfigured as a semi-luxe Italian restaurant.  there were some glitches with the menu, but what we ended up with was just what Mom wanted (spaghetti with meat sauce- most basic and authenic) ; we both enjoyed the eggplant wrapped around fresh tomato and cheese;  my “osso bucco” was really veal shank, not ox tail, but it was ok. And that will end our “gourmet” dinners for the cruise – the really swank restaurant was booked to overflow the afternoon of the first day, so we don’t have to deal with it.

We are skimming along the Bay of Finland under clearing skies at 9:20 PM – seems like 6PM at home.  Mom is wrapped in a terry robe under a comforter and about to be gone;  I am enjoying my journal but not thinking about stretching to anything more serious – I guess this is vacation.

To Russia with Mom: Day Five : Safely aboard The Cruise Ship

At the boat – Silversea Cruises Silver Whisper – a different world.  A trio of beige-shirted porters materialized as soon as our driver had unloaded our three suitcases – I had put the Silversea tags on before leaving the hotel.  Whish!  A wheelchair appeared and Mom was enthroned. Poof!  Our luggage had disappeared, to reappear magically in our suite after our lung. Kowabunga! We were through customs, checked into our rooms, and sitting down for lunch in the Panorama Lounge. We had been “welcome aboard”ed so many times our heads were spinning.

Settling in on the ship

Maybe that is what prompted Mom’s  bout with indigestion after lunch.  Or maybe it was the rich dinner last night, skimpy breakfast this AM, dessert-first lunch today – who knows.    She skipped the “Introduction to Helsinki” Lecture, rested, and was able to put down a ridiculous meal of strip steak, Potatos William, asparagus, plus petits fours and some berry shortcake in the evening– nothing I could say in favor of a simple meal would dissuade her.

I treated myself to a martini to celebrate our arrival on the ship, and must  say it did lead to a certain feeling of exaltation afterward – the ship is beautiful, strung with lights, and from the Observation Deck on the 10th level you can see the spire of Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral at the Admiralty, plus several other gilded domes, brilliant in the last light despite sweeps of rain falling from storm clouds all around the horizon.

Mom in bed, me at the computer, I heard bangs outside – looked up – the skies had cleared, sunset was happening – and so were fireworks across the bridge just off shore from the Admiralty – tried to take pix but could not judge digital camera’s hang time. After first spate finished, heard another barrage starting from another bridge further down the river – all spires and rooftops gleaming with the fresh rain and setting sun – too wonderful!

To Russia with Mom: Day 5 – St. Petersburg stroll

Note Peter and Catharine center bottom

Day five – St. Petersburg (Monday): I had hoped to sleep in this morning to 8;30.  At 8:00 Mom wakes me – she is half – dressed, but cannot get into the bathroom because she cannot make the light go on.  She had not rremembered the notification last night that we would be electricity deprived until 10 AM.  She said “Allyson, I am so dependent on you.  I could not do anything without you”.  I had mixed reactions to this.  For a child, to have the parent declare dependence after a lifetime of having it the other way give a weird sense of justification.  Alternatively, if it had not been for the dysfunction of the electic outage, she might well have managed quite well and her self-confidence would not have been further weakened;  I was angry and gratified at once.

I  resolved  that I must find the local post office (“only 10 minutes by steps” ) to send postcards as is my tradition.  I tell Mom” Just stay here, rest, read your New Yorker, put on your makeup; I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”

But it is too beautiful outside not to share.  After yesterday’s rain the morning is bright and sunny.   I get to the end of the block and there is a wonderful footbridge guarded by lions with gilded wings.  Across the canal is the Cathedral of the Lady of Kazan.  Down the canal is the Church on Spilled Blood, , its onion domes gleaming in the sun,twice as fantastic in bright sun as it already was under gray skies.  I continue as far as the Cathedral, where I see a Russian Orthodox Mass in progress, sung in Latin with antiphonal chants, and a long queue of folks waiting to present their most fervent hope to the icon of Mary, which is supposed to have miraculous powers.  Too fascinating.  I turn back, roust Mom off the bed, drag her out to sunshine and spectacle.

We see a costumed Catherine and Peter posing for photos.  We see an expedition of scarved women believers on their way to present their cases to the Lady.  We see the Singer Building, an art deco extravaganza dating back to when sewing machines were an international status symbol, and beyond, the Church of Spilled Blood ever more fantastic as we approach.

Finally we turn back.  We may have reached the Post Office without knowing it, but we ware late for checkout at our hotel – would Davrila the friendly receptionist get in trouble?  We hurry back, Mom nearly dehydrated by the time we arrive.  I hump the 3 heavy suitcases and one zippered bag downstairs, we arrange for a taxi at 2 PM  (“the English Embarkation Pier” is NOT sufficient address for a hotel which does not cater to cruise tourists! – tracking down its location took an extra 20 minutes of our break time).  We make a last foray to the Gostiny Dvor for some last minute necessaries, and ice cream (chocolate chip and maple swirl make any day worthwhile!) .

Our taxi driver did not speak any English, but he was guided by GPS to our port, and he was amused by my misadventures trying to take some last-minute photos – It never failed that as I was focusing on some equestrian statue, a giant tour bus would pull up next to us just as I pushed the trigger. –  I have lots of gray pix with red stripes.

Next: A different world – the Cruise Ship

To Russia with Mom – Day 4 – Parks, Palaces and Caviar

Our Sunday plan to go by boat to Peterhof was foiled:  the indefatigable  Maxas went online to get boat tickets and found that the entire morning was sold out – so instead he  drove us expeditiously through empty Sunday morning streets and we arrived at Peterhof at least as quickly as the boat could have, parking with a good entry to the palace.  A light drizzle reinforced our gratitude for the cozy car as opposed to the open-air boat ride.

There was already a line to see the Palace, and we decided to concentrate on the park with its gilded statues, fountains, benches, birch woods, more fountains, hide-away mini-palaces and more fountains.

I liked best the small mini-castle “pavilion” where Peter the Great could hang out with his young wife without a lot of pomp. It has a tidy kitchen with delft tiles around the oven.  Martha Stewart would apporve the  matchy-matchy wall-papered, draperied, bed-curtained bedroom.  The bed is immense to accomodate Peter, who was well over six feet tall in an age where 5’3″ was the average; Peter’s  heavily embroidered nightshirt is laid out on the bed ready to be donned.  Off the bedroom a small office with some maritime-ish instruments evoke  Peter’s maritime interests.

Maxas, Mom, and Russian pigeon – Baltic in background

We walked a lot;   finally we found a bench and sat eating our granola bars shared around.  Good kind Maxas suggested that as Mom needed a rest, we could forego the upper formal French gardens and go over to the town of Pushkin to see the Catharine Palace and where Pushkin went to school.

This was a mixed success – Mom napped in the car, but it was windier and colder at Pushkin;  the line at 4PM to get into the palace was 90 minutes long and the palace closed at 5;  we went to Pushkin’s school which has four floors with no elevators – Mom made it up and down three but we gave up seeing Pushkins bedroom.

We said good-bye to Maxas at the end of the afternoon, tried to thank him but he would have none of it.  He had given us two entire days of thoughtful guidance and  would not even let me buy our tickets to the parks.  I had been warned of Russian hospitality – this  example shines.

Crystal! Chandeliers! Soprano! Mirrors! Dr. Zhivago was here!

We decided to splurge for dinner at the Grand Hotel l’Europe, just a few blocks from our modest digs.  Their Caviar Bar is another ornate, mirrored, chandeliered venue complete with a blonde singer in a red satin gown to match the red-velvet and gilt decor.  She was backed by an acoustic guitarist and string base;  I was appreciating the Slavic folk tunes when I recognized “Granada” – maybe not so authentic after all.

Our two appetizers, two cocktails, and an amuse-bouche from the chef came to about $80, all worth it for the assiduous service and the baroque atmosphere – I kept expecting Lara and Yuri to step into the frame at any minute.

At the hotel, we were greeted wih a sign saying that we would be without electricity from 6AM to 10AM on Monday.  No explanation, just smiles and shrugs from the suddenly non-English-speaking staff.  OK, as long as we don’t have to use the elevator before 10AM.  Tomorrow we board our boat!

To Russia With Mom: Elder-Friendly Spots in St. Petersburg – and Not

Flat and sheltered as far as the eye can see!

Gostiny Dvor -  The Good:  half of the shops are on ground level with both an exterior rain-sheltering arcade and an interior path that leads from one end to the other of this long mercantile block.  Service was friendly and if the shop-owner did not have what we needed, we were given direction to another shop that might. Recommended:  the ice cream shop in the far left corner (from Nevsky Prospekt)

The Bad: There are two floors and if there is an elevator, we did not find it.

The Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt –  The Good: A gorgeous lobby, and elevator to the Mezzanine location of the relatively inexpensive and very attractive Mezzanine Café, or the elegant but pricey  Caviar Bar.  Recommend: the Caviar Bar Appetizer menu and a cocktail for your last-night splurge.

The Bad:  Must get on the right elevator to descend to the ground floor, or face elegant but slippery marble staircase.   Two appetizers and two cocktails at the Caviar Bar ran us close to $100 US including tip.

The Mariinsky Theatre (formerly known as the Kirov under the Soviets): The Good: Beautiful theatre, only a few steps to seating on the ground floor.  Just looking at the baroque interior is entertainment;  the world class opera and ballet is a bonus.

The Bad: Ladies room is down a steep flight of stairs; no visible elevator.

The Hermitage Museum – The Good: Wheelchair service gets you royal treatment from tour guides and tourists alike.  Elevators are available –  only to wheelchair users and pushers. Unbelievable art hung in an amazing baroque palace.

The Bad:  Only two  restrooms, at very beginning and at very end of tour. Need 60 hours at least to really appreciate all that is here;  our tour took 3 hours.    Still 3 hours of wonderful is better than none!

Peterhof:  – The good: miles of wonderful level strolling paths in a garden fantasy of fountains, pools, pavilions, and statuary.  You enter at the top of the Grand Cascade;  there is a ramp entrance down to the right in the direction of the Pagoda Fountains.  (If you miss this ramp, the staircases down at the middle and the far side are VERY long.)  Lots of benches for sitting and admiring.  The Pavilions  were Peter the Great and his Catharine took refuge are charming and much as they might have been in Peter’s time.

The Bad: No elevators in the historic pavilions and stairs to upper  floors are steep with minimal handrails.  Path up to walkway on levy for view of Baltic Sea is steep.  Line to see inside main palace is long. (We skipped it.)

Catharine’s Palace: the Good: the exterior of Catharine’s palace is lovely  – if you like Wedgwood china you will love the effect of white and gilt trim on blue.

The Bad: the line for seeing the interior of Catharine’s palace is very long.  I’m sorry we missed this, as friends had told me the Amber Room is a DON’T MISS, but it was starting to rain, the wind was picking up, and we lost our nerve.

Queue for entry 45 minutes before closing…

Pushkin –  the Good: The school where Pushkin studied is very evocative of the life of aristocratic young scholars – lots of fascinating artifacts.

The Bad: NO ELEVATOR, and a brutal spiral staircase thronged with Russian school children on field trips. Also almost no benches for resting between ascents.  Pushkin’s room is on the 4th floor (effectively the 5th).  We got only as far as the 3rd floor;  I couldn’t force Mom’s bad knee any higher.

To Russia with Mom – Tips for traveling with the Oldest Old

Wouldn’t you like to jump this queue at the Frankfurt Airport? Here’s how!

Traveling with the truly aged has both challenges and benefits. The pace will be slow, but there are advantages that come with age.
For example, friends had warned me how difficult it would be to enjoy the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, with all the Asian tourists jostling and elbowing to get to the front of the crowd and take their obligatory pictures. But I was traveling with my 91-year-old mother, who had reluctantly agreed to use a wheelchair for the Museum tour. The large group of Japanese tourists who were part of our tour bowed deferentially to this silver-haired lady in a wheelchair, beckoned us to the front of the crowd to see each of the important pictures, made sure Mom could hear the guides commentary, and even insisted we go to the front of the line in the loo for access to the handicapped stall – It is good to be a dowager! (I shared all the privileges as the designated pusher.)

Look at the body language in the Queue at the Hermitage! This is a vacation?

As the trip evolved, there were a number of ideas that worked well to smooth Mom’s journey. Here are some top tips:
First cardinal rule: Take all the help you can get!
Traveling with an elderly companion requires extra alertness, awareness of hazards, and forethought. Tour operators and airline personnel have lots of experience on how to make an older person safe and comfortable – don’t hesitate to ask for help and take advantage of their knowledge.

  • If you are flying, be sure to request wheelchair assistance at every airport.
Mom at secret elevator with the estimable FTA agent in Frankfurt

Mom objected to using a wheelchair at first – “I’m not THAT old!” but when she realized how many lines she could avoid standing in, and how many short cuts between terminals would be opened, she relaxed and played the queen enthroned with gusto.

  • Many airlines reserve easy-access seats on the airplane for handicapped passengers and their escorts. Mom and I had the benefit of this allowance which twice gave us a trio of seats to share between the two of us in the extra-leg-room section of the plane.
  • Shamelessly use any other perk available.  My United Gold card got us into the Star Alliance Lounge in both San  Francisco and Frankfurt.  SFO’s United Club enabled us to get through an  unexpected 3 hour flight delay without too much pain;  in Frankfurt we enjoyed a varied and delicious lunch buffet in the Lufthansa Lounge between flights.

Mom eyeing apple cake at Lufthansa’s dessert buffet

  • Many bus tour companies reserve the front seats of the bus for handicapped passengers.
  • Many bus tour companies offer “kneeling” buses for easier access.
  • Most museums, even in ancient churches and public buildings, have some sort of elevator or ramp access. Don’t shy about asking, as your tour guide may not think of it or may not want to be bothered finding out if the “lift” is currently in operation.
  • If you are part of a tour group, insist that the “sweep” stay with you, even though your pace may be slow. This will prevent your being lost from the group if they make a sudden left turn and you miss it by lagging (as happened to us in Stockholm as we navigated through the labyrinthine City Hall).
  • Schedule some break time for the support team.

Walking at a slower-than-normal pace with an arm crooked to offer support can be as exhausting as power-walking, and being constantly alert for hazards and obstacles is wearing on the brain. Let your older companion take a nap and use the time to stretch and exercise your body, move fast, take in a few extra sights and sounds of the exotic place you are in. You’ll feel great – and grateful for all you are able to do. Trust me, your older fellow traveler will be happy to vicariously share any independent adventures over the dinner table.

To Russia with Mom – Day 3 (part 2) : Breakfast, Ballet, Brides, Bistro a la Russe

Bright and sunny morning.  Seating for our complimenatary breakfast was up a steep flight of stairs on a mezzanine above the buffet service counter – not a good way for Mom to start the day.  Our accomodating hostess made space for us at the side of the counter.   Breakfast very Russian: 2 kinds of porridge (neither one oatmeal), tomato omelet or hard-boiled eggs, white or rye bread, waffles, yogurt, apple/orange fruit salad, cucumber/tomato salad, cold cuts, cheese, and coffee strong enough to float the spoon. (This was standard fare for our Russian mornings).

Maxas picked us up promptly at 11:15 for the ballet performance at the Mariinsky theatre, a wonderfully baroque structure inside and out.  This matinee was a “graduation performance” of the Mariinsky Ballet Conservatory (known as the Kirov School of Ballet under the Soviets) – 3.5 hours of varied performance – everything from modern dance to Pierrette/Pierrot mime to pseudo-West Side Story to a court dance from a Glinka opera (Glinka is big in St. Petersburg). Mom had the aisle seat, which she held onto even after “the biggest man in all of Russia” sat in front of her.

The audience was almost as varied as the ballet, with lots of doting grandparent and parents,  adorable kid sisters in braids and ruffled dresses, younger ballet school classmates holding themselves very upright, as well as scruffy boy friends and girl friends of the graduates in tattoos, jacket and jeans.

Some bits were just wonderful – the first with the company in flowing slips or simple tights and just exploding like fireworks as the music and movement called for it.  Another bit which was comedic but required tremendous athletic elevation and extension from the cocky little bantam rooster balletomane.

Mom and Maxas

Maxas is a student of Soviet history and an aficionado of classic ballet and symphony, so he was a wellspring of information. I was so impressed not only by his depth of info but also his instant understanding or and consideration for Mom’s limitations – we did a lot of driving around points of interest after the ballet rather than walking as he originally planned; the restaurant where we had lunch/tea after the ballet was quiet with an English menu in large print, and he was careful to look directly at Mom and speak as clearly as possible. This helped a lot.

After tea we drove along the Neva River admiring the green lawns, the over-flowing flower boxes and plantings, the gilded domes and spires of the Admiralty Fortress and St Isaacs Cathedral.  We did some bride-spotting – at least six Saturday bridal parties emerging like butterflies from their BMW, Mercedes, and Hum-Vee stretch limo cocoons, getting their ritual pix taken. Fashion note: Russian bridal gowns a little more ruffly and top-of-the-wedding-cake-y than at the Stanford Chape;  I saw one with a bright red sash on cream, one with a white lace corset laced up the back, one with a 12-foot tulle veil/train fighting the wind.  I also noted Russian  bridesmaids’ gowns tending more to bright-colored chiffon rather than black satin.

In the evening Mom decided that she needed a drink before dinner even more than she needed dinner.  I had spotted a bar with nice outside seating the day before.  We set off sheltered from the rain by my faithful blue umbrella, by a wonderful long arcade around the shopping mall – and by a few side trips into the shopping mall.  We got to the place – no outside seating in the rain even if we had wanted. The place was full, but a kind young server lady took pity on our dampness, age and infirmity and found us a table.  It was only after we had placed our order  for a Jack Daniels with Ice, water mit gaz,  a Greek salad and some spicy chicken wings that I noticed a number of hookahs being employed at at least half the tables around us.   There we were, two little silver-haired Alices surrounded by puffing caterpillars blowing smoke rings.  Mom got a huge charge out of it once I had explained what was going on.

On the way home we got a bonus bride-spotting – In the Gostiny Dvor arcade a guy was shooting a lipstick commercial involving a “bride” in slogan  T-shirt and tulle, throwing her lipstick to the panting bridesmaids in pink slogan T-shirts.  Then he had them all jumping for the lipstick – bride included.  Cute!

To Russia with Mom – Day 3 – Martyr’s Manic Monument

Mom and the Church on Spilled Blood

The Church on Spilled Blood erupts from the site of the assassination of Csar Alexander II like a clump of maniacally multicolored mushrooms.  Yes, that is an over-the-top opening sentence, and this over-the-top icon of St. Petersburg deserves it. The church’s exterior façade is made up of elaborate brickwork with gilded mosaic insets, topped by seven onion-shaped domes, either gilded, painted or tiled in colorful patterns of checks and swirls. If you can imagine Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle covered in vari-colored gumdrops held on with gold-leaf staples, you might have an inkling of what the outside is like. It is surrounded by tourists, brides, and wedding parties, all enthusiastically snapping photos of the Church and each other as well as of the erzatz Catherine and Peter the Greats who hang about in period costume hoping to be paid for a photo.

Interior with saints – Church on Spilled Blood

Inside is another unworldly vision – a vertical mosaic world of golden-haloed giants against an ethereal blue background.  Anything not covered by mosaic tile is gilded. The floors are inlaid with marble in diverse colors and intricate patterns.

High in the dome above a compassionate and sorrowful Christ looks down at the sinners below. Mysteriously, his fingers area crossed.  Is he wishing us luck against the odds?

Christ in his heaven

A sunken , flower-decked spot in the floor surmounted by an elaborately carved wooden gazebo marks the actual site of the czar’s assassination by a terrorist bomb attack in 1881. Mom is convinced that this gazebo was build first and then the rest of the church built around it – I’m not sure if this is true or a garbled version of a half-heard tour guide’s talk.Origin tale true or not, the Church on Spilled Blood  is also one of Mom’s favorite sights of our whole trip. If you are visually impaired, an outsize and brightly colored landmark is sure to be a hit.

Mom inside the Church of Spilled Blood

To Russia with Mom – Day 2 -Frankfurt -> St. Petersburg

In-flight (10 hours). We are in a new 777 with on-demand movie, TV, audio, and game channels – hundreds of selections! Is this cool or what?

In fact, there is a lot less here than meets the eye – a choice of  12 “current release”  movies is not thrilling if they are all unwatchable.  I took a look at  “Journey 2: the Mysterious Island” –  the Teletubbies have better visual effects than this.  I go back to my 19th century media – back issues of  Science News Digest and the New Yorker.

Mom was excited at first also, but a choice of hundreds of media options is not very useful to a visually impaired nonagenarian if the choices are unreadable –  small light blue type on a medium blue touchscreen just doesn’t cut it.  I try to pick a movie she will like and she settles in with “As Good As It Gets”, struggling to make the audio phones fit over her hearing aids.  Fortunately, she is able to sleep.

In-flight meal – I get lucky – there is an extra vegetarian meal in the galley – a nice spicy curry of corn, peas, and chickpeas over rice.  I set aside the triple brownie for future need. Mom gets the chicken and eats a good bit of the chicken, rice, and salad.  I snag her brownie also.

“Breakfast” is a disgrace” – a “croissant” as fluffy as a baseball bat, six small chunks of unripe melon, half inedible.  I blush for United, imagining the feelings of the passengers used to the amenities on Lufthansa and other state-sponsored airlines.

We land in Frankfut at 12:32 local time.  Our connecting flight leaves at 1:25.  The stewardess  assures me that we can make it.  Despite some nervous moments,  and thanks to the kindness of strangers who yielded prority seats on the bus and offered many helping hands, we do.

A special commendaton to the harried service staff for Lufthansa at Frankfurt, faced with a plane-load of slow-moving seniors and families with tight connections to various vacation places. They maintained patience, order, and control over the anxious horde, several electric carts, and assorted wheelchairs.  A special shout out to Eilika Williams, our personal chair navigator, who wormed us through secret passageways, forbidden gates, and past long security lines, all the while maintaining a cheerful stream of chatter and a wide smile to allay Mom’s anxiety.

Through the Frankfurt maze!

We are aboard the Lufthansa flight to St. Petersburg.  At first we are seated far apart, but the kind gentleman in the aisle seat moves up one row, which allows Mom to move up, and we have a whole row of three seats to ourselves!  They serve a hot meal.  I finish a Smithsonian magazine, play a few rounds of solitaire, think, write a little.

****

The St. Petersburg Airport –  Arrival.  Chaos.  No wheelchair here, no magic card or helpful genie to speed us through the queue.  Actuall, “queue” is a misnomer, implying some sort of order or sequence.  We simply merge into a tidal wave.

My ex-colleague and now friend Maxas is waiting for us as we exit from customs(after standing in queue for nearly an hour – did I ever miss Japan!). He packs all our stuff into his snazzy red French mini-van, gives us a quick tour of the central city sights (the Bronze Horseman, the Winter Palace, the Nicholas Istatue, the Legislative buildings, the Nevsky Prospect, Dostoevsky’s house) and deposits us at our hotel, together with the baggage which requires two trips in the tiny elevator to convey to our room.

We are unwinding now in a very lovely little hotel room  at the Stony Island Hotel on Lomontoriv Prospect, just around the corner from the Russian Museum.  We change a few clothes, and check on what we have misplaced so far. (My sunglasses disappeared after the first security check… they may yet reappear and I have backups)

Arcade – Gostinyy Dvor

After our R&R we venture out, walking around a huge building which hadsbeen re-purposed into a shopping mall.  (We later discover that this is the famous Gostinyy Dvor, the oldest department store inthe world, now carved up into a series of small bourtique shops.).We make it to Nevsky Prospekt where we see lots of happy looking people in various shades of style walking, chatting, swigging beer, and  watching street performers.  We do not make it to any notable sights as hunger overtakes us.  We are surprised to be told at the little café that they did not serve anything but coffee, tea, and pastries after 10PM – it is still quite bright outside and we had no idea it was that late.  Fortunately the croissants and jam we ended with are delicious, as iss the tea we share.

We find our way back to the hotel, feeling triumphant – we have arrived!  We have explored!  We have eaten!  We are in Russia, the hidden, secret, unknown mystery of my childhood, fantasized as a place of gray, treeless, empty streets , now revealed as a bustling  place full of life and color and exhiliration.  It all seems a bit like the Emerald City of Oz.

A piece of my mind editorialized “This is not Russia – anymore than San Francisco is America!” Most of my thinking was just joyful to find a place so much better than my expectation.  How often does that happen? Can the spell last? We have three days more to spend here…

To Russia with Mom – Prelude

My mother has traveled to over 30 countries on 6 continents, about half with my father in the adventurous years after children and before infirmity, the other half on her own or with a friend or family member.

My mother is 91 years old.  She has no vision in one eye and very limited vision in the other.  Her hearing is ok if you are seated across from her directly at a distance of no more than 6 feet.  She wears hearing aids which seem to vary in their usefulness.  She frequently repeats questions which have just been answered. Occasionally she Is afflicted with digestion troubles.

My mother lives next door to me and has become my best friend.   I think I am hers also, as almost all potential rivals for that title are deceased already.

My mother declared on her 91st birthday that she wanted one more trip. I had quit my salaried job 9 months previously and my other siblings have work, children at home, and other impediments.  We began trying to figure out where and how to go.

At first we leaned toward a trip within the US – no long plane flights, no issues if medical help was required.  Mom thought a boat would be nice so that she would not have to pack and unpack often. We looked at a cruise of the Great Lakes, but Mom was put off by the need to pay extra for any alcohol, and by the unglamorous posts of call (Embark from Detroit? Stop at Cleveland?  Sorry – those names just didn’t sing.)

Then the European economic bubble burst, and  the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia  ran aground in Sardinia – suddenly the cost of high-end cruises in Europe tumbled.  Even including the plane fare, we could go by 6-star cruise line from St. Petersburg to Copenhagen, stopping at Helsinki and Stockholm along the way, for less than the cost of an Elder Hostel cruise from Detroit to Quebec City. Wow! Four countries on one trip which Mom had not visited before!  And I have business friends in St. Petersburg who could show us around a bit.  We cast aside our fears and signed on.

We committed to the cruise in April, which gave us two months to anticipate everything that might go wrong:

Mom might lose the batteries for her hearing aids.  We bought three times the number that would normally be needed;  I carried a supply, Mom carries a double supply.

Mom might fall on the boat.  She hates to use a cane because “it makes me look old and feeble”.  My husband  bought a specially sturdy foldable cane in a fetching shade of pink. My sister bought a not-as-sturdy foldable cane in a pink paisley pattern.  Mom promised to try.

Mom might get lost on the boat, since it is hard for her to distinguish signs and numbers at any distance.  I bought a set of walkie-talkies which I hoped we could use on the boat and on sight-seeing trips in case we got separated, assuming she can figure out the buttons.

Mom might be cold in those Northern latitudes, even though we were traveling just after the summer solstice.  We exhumed thermal underwear from long-ago ski trips and discovered the elastic had disintegrated.  I had two sets of silk long underwear  – Mom is borrowing one.  At the last minute Mom packed the old thermal underwear anyway, just in case.

Mom might have one of her infrequent bouts with spastic colon.  At the last minute we stuffed every cranny with adult diapers.

Mom has a hard time these days with check lists.  It is hard for her to remember what she intended to pack vs. what she has actually  packed.  My sister and niece came down for a weekend  armed with a detailed checklist provided by my cousin, a cruise veteran.  It took six hours of making decisions, but the suitcase and carry-on were packed to perfection except for the hearing aids,  medications, and glasses.

Mom has a hard time juggling documents.  I took charge of the passports, cruise documents, luggage tags.

Mom might be uncomfortable sleeping on the plane.  My husband found an easy- to- inflate neck pillow and a pair of shocking pink eye-shades.

My husband, sister, older brother and I walked ourselves through every possible scenario.  We packed backups for everything that could be used up or exhausted.  I have never travelled with such a full suitcase on the outgoing flight (coming back, stuffed with souvenir and presents, is another matter).

With fingers crossed for luck, we set out.

For a nonagenarian, a 20-step loading staircase is a challenge. Will we meet it?

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