Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

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

21st Century girl meets 19th Century technology

(published in Los Altos Town Crier Aug 10, 2012)

I have traditionally hosted my grand daughter for a week during the summer.  At thirteen she has grown into quite the young lady.  I tried to do some make-believe like we use to do with the stuffed animals in her room and she reproved me with “I’m not a little girl anymore, Grandma!”  I knew this was true when I went up to check on her comfort and saw she was no longer sleeping with her Panda Bear, but instead with her Samsung Galaxy S3. So 21st century!

Still, when I suggested a sewing project she was all enthusiasm.  I had a few dress patterns left over from my crafty days, and she picked a nice simple wrap-sundress (Jiffy!  One piece! Lots of straight seams! ) We had a good time at Joann’s Fabric and Crafts picking out the fabric – she finally settled on a red gingham check with a contrasting red polka-dot calico.  The gingham check turned out to be very helpful as it provided lots of straight lines to sew along.

We pinned carefully and she was in charge of the cutting, making sure that all the “Cut on line of fabric” lined up perfectly with the gingham check.  She had a little difficulty at first with the sewing machine. (“It won’t go!  And then it goes too fast! It’s too loud!  I can’t do it!”)  There was a minor meltdown on the couch.

That night an invitation arrived – instead of staying with us through Saturday morning, she could go up on Friday to visit her uncle and aunt in San Francisco for an overnight.  Cool!  But we would have that much less time to finish the dress.  She looked at me, squared her jaw,  and said “So, no more freaking out?”

I nodded.


The next day she screwed up her courage, sat down at the machine, and just did it.  From then on, anything I showed her (fastening an end seam with a back stitch, ironing the ties, turning a corner, doing a hem, hand-sewing a facing) she observed, absorbed, and did.

Maybe it was lucky that I was the one to make the stupid mistakes (cutting along a fold that wasn’t supposed to be two pieces, sewing a pocket one check higher than its mate) and she was the one to correct them.  Certainly it was wonderful that when she wore the dress for the first time to the camp she was attending during her stay, her new friend at camp said “That’s a really cute dress!” and she was able to say “Thank you. I made it myself – with a little help from my Grandma.” So 19thcentury!

It was a great week for both of us.  My granddaughter cleaned up my smart phone and showed me some new tricks I could do with it.  She got us to Skype.  We ate her favorite food, took her to see Brave on the big screen, enjoyed the things she did in camp, and watched our favorite old movies on the small screen.  (So 20th century!)

But the best was The Dress.  19th century met 21st century, and everybody won.

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: Useful Equipment for Elderly Travelers

Here is a checklist of useful equipment and supplies.  Much of this should be in the zippable tote bag you carry on to the plane or train.

  1. A foldable cane.  Not only will this provide extra balance and security on uneven pavement or cobblestones, but it sends a signal to surrounding people that this person may be moving slowly, may not respond quickly to the unexpected, may not be stable, and they will give you wider passage, a helping hand, more consideration.
  2. A head lamp/lantern/flashlight. Lighting in hotel rooms may be inadequate for visually handicapped travelers – a bright LED headlamp is great for late-night reading or early-morning packing.

In one otherwise excellent Russian hotel, we were told that there would be no electricity between 6AM and 10AM the following morning (thus disabling the elevator, the bathroom lights, and the coffee machine in the breakfast room).  We were lucky that we did not need to bring our suitcases down from our second floor room any earlier than 10AM.  Wearing my headlamp I descended the steep, dark stairs and retrieved a cold breakfast and thermos of tea for us.   My head lamp features an attachment that converts it into a lantern;  this was a vital accessory in an electricity-deprived, windowless bathroom.

3. Noise-cancelling headphones.  These are really good on airplanes to enable hearing-impaired to enjoy the audio and movie channels more fully. (Tip:  if you have an old set of Bose earphones, you can trade them in at a Bose store to purchase a new set at a hefty discount.)

4. An ample supply of adult diapers (If there is any possibility of incontinence)

5. A packet of pop-up wipes such as are used for babies – handy for cleaning hands, spills, surfaces as well as any toilet accidents.

6. Energy bars for snacks.

7. A blow-up neck pillow – make sure it is easy to inflate and deflate, and has a comfortable cover.  Older old can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, but also wake up with stiff joints.

8. Travel sox – it is nice to take off shoes if you are on a long flight.

9. A shoe horn in your carry-on – to get those shoes back on after they have swollen in flight.

10. A couple of packets of plastic utensils (very useful in eating that cold breakfast)  Nab a couple of extra packets from the airline meal trolley – these are perfect!

11. Extra batteries for flashlight, hearing aids, noise-cancelling headphones

12. Medications pre-loaded in pillboxes marked for each day of the week.

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