Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

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 – Day one (In flight SFO->Frankfurt)


Our flight is scheduled to depart at 1:56 PM.  I call Mom at 8:30 AM. She is up and dressed, but there are some things she can’t find.  I go through the hedge  Explanatory [Note: I live next door to my Mom] and find what needs finding, forget about the other items that won’t be needed on the trip. We empty the fridge of everything which won’t last two weeks.  I take milk, meat, cheese, fruit through the hedge to our fridge for my husband’s survival rations.

I call Mom again at 10:30 with a 15 minute warning.  She says “I’m ready to walk out the door.”

We bring the car around at 10:45.  The door is closed and locked.  We ring the bell. No response.  We ring the bell again.  Finally Mom opens the door.  She had fallen asleep.  Well, at least she is relaxed.

We load two incredibly heavy suitcases, a jam-packed rolling tote, and an equally crammed Land’s End Tote into the trunk of the car.  I hand Mom’s passport around her neck in a little ID pouch recycled from a trade show.  I have my passport, cash, airline itinerary in a passport wallet around my neck. We are off!

1PM – At the airport:  I have a Gold card for United thanks to my business excursions in Asia last year, so we get fast processing through check in;  my mother’s silver hair gets us waved into the Priority line at Security,  and we are quickly admitted to the Red Carpet Club, where we are informed of an hour’s delay of our flight.  We have a four hour window at Frankfurt, now cut to three.  No worries.  We settle in with trail mix, raw carrots, cheese and crackers;  Mom snoozes and reads; I read and write.

Two hours later: Our plane is undergoing “aircraft servicing” and the flight time has slipped from 1:55 PM to 3PM to 4PM. We still have a two hour window to make our St Petersburg flight, but  if it slips another hour we may not make our connection.  I talk with assorted other folks using Frankfurt as a connection point to Moscow, Florence, Copenhagen, and other exotic points – many with tighter connections and fewer options.  I’m glad we added a few days in front of our cruise date in St. Petersburg; I’m getting a little worried about the Saturday matinee ballet tickets my friend Maxas secured for us.

I get online and email my husband and Maxas, more to vent than to inform, at this point.

3:30 – Boarding announcement.  We gather our scattered  resources and head for Gate 95.  Again, Mom’s silver hair is even more effective than my gold card in getting us priority seating.

4:55: finally, three hours late, in flight.  Our Frankfurt transfer window is cut to one hour.  Will we and our luggage make it?

On board and ready to fly!

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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