Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Elderly travellers”

From Russia with Mom – Day 8-9 – Stockholm

Stockholm – Another sparkling day  spent in buses and museums. You can imagine being a Viking on a day like this, cruising through the inlets and isles of the Swedish coast, riding the wind on a dragon boat, monarch of the world!

Some museums are worth it.  The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is a jaw dropper!  Nothing had prepared me for the impact of this one-of-a-kind, perfectly thought-through museum.  Walk into the darkened hallway and enter the cavernous museum hall  and there is a 17th century war ship levitated from the deep like something in a fevered dream of Pirates of the Caribbean, except that not even Jack Hawkins could imagine the demented level of decoration (when you look up the work ornate  in the dictionary … or did I say that before ?) – spars and shrouds and rigging all looking like it is ready to sail off into a night sky to join The Flying Dutchman.   Instead, on its maiden voyage in 1628 the weight of all that decoration caused it to capsize, then sink.  Its masts  sticking up from the bottom were a hazard of the harbor until the embarassed king (who had taken over design when the shipbuilder died) had the masts cut off.

The museum design allows you to view a ship model up close, then go from the top floor down level by level, giving you a close-up view of every detail from the crows nest to the keel.  Videos, slide show overlays, and artifacts document both the building of the ship, the tremendous engineering feat which brought it up in one piece from its resting place of over 500 years, and its meticulously imagined and executed  restoration.

The next Notable Site was the Stockholm City hall where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet each December 10, the anniversary of the death date of Alfred Nobel.  It was fun imagining oneself dancing in the art-deco gold-mosaic  ball room.   The mosaic which dominates the hall does its best to be ecumenical, with Europe and the US represented on one side of the giant goddess of knowledge, and the domes of Istanbul, a tiger, an elephant, some vaguely Chinese mountains and an Arabian flag on the side of Asia.    What about Africa? India? South America?  I guess to the Swedes of 1920 most of the Southern Hemisphere was just geography.

Can you spot the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty? (lower left)

After the official bus tour I joined up with a fellow cruiser and took the shuttle back to central Stockholm.  Stockholmers tall, healthy, erect, slender, tending to blond.  Streets clean, wide, lined with parks and trees.  What’s not to like?  (It’s a bait-and-switch – think about December when you have only 5 hours of weak sunlight per day!)

[Note: one of the cruise entertainers has written several blog posts about this same trip – for a different point of view, check out Duke Zoran’s Blog on Stockholm]

Tourist shopping tip: to avoid impulse purchases and subsequent buyer’s remorse, be pre-armed with an idea of something you would actually like to buy; if you find it, you have a successful souvenir;  if not, you at least have a way to fend off souvenir hawkers.  My comrade was looking for knitting wool;  we poked around some very interesting shops in the course of finding something wonderful.

Next day – on the bus once more for a tour of the Viking Golden Hoard in the Historical Museum and a visit to the Royal Armoury in the basement of the Royal Palace.  The lean and acidulous retired professor leading the tour  enthralled us with the political maneouvreing between Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark during the 18th – 20th centuries – seems the Swedes were quite accustomed to cutting their coat to suit the prevailing winds (AKA neutrality).

It was a beautiful day to be passing in a dungeon (the locale of the armoury) so we were glad when the tour brought us back to the boat.  The clouds were hovering and the wind freshening as we left Stockholm harbor , but now post-lunch we are on the sunny side of the boat and Mom is wrapped in a cozy terry robe snoozing  on our balcony as the Baltic Sea rustles by.

We are very close to some of the small islands  – suddenly we are passing a very serious looking gun emplacement with pillboxes set into the hill and large cannons looming.  Guns of Stockharone?

Tips on travel with the Oldest Old – Part III – Cruising

Failing strength, advancing years, and weakening eyesight may not dull the wanderlust in the heart of the traveler – what alternatives are available to ease the travel experience for the itchy-footed elderly?  There are many  – the cost often varying in direct proportion to the level of ease and convenience provided.  Careful shopping and the assistance of a good travel agent can help.

One of the most popular alternatives for an elderly traveler is the boat cruise.  The advantages are immediately clear:

Having a boat as home base  eliminates the bother and confusion of packing and repacking, saving energy for the important business of sight-seeing and socializing.   Every night spent in the same bedroom eliminates the possibility of something critical being left behind.

Home away from home

Having the same bedroom layout, dining room access, and elevator access each day is a great help to a visually or mobility-impaired traveler. If the goal is to relax, eliminating the tension of getting to know a new “home base” is a big plus.

The ratio of personnel to guests is usually high on a cruise ship, ensuring there will be plenty of assistance available as needed, either for embarking and disembarking or for planning and enabling excursions along the cruise route.

Being on a cruise ship allows the scenery to come to the traveler.  One elderly friend of mine enjoys cruise after cruise on the same ship.  He has become friends with the crew, enjoys the amenities on board, observes the constantly changing scene at the ports of call  and in between, but never leaves the boat.


Cruises can be pricey;  look for discounts at the edges of the season.  We were able to book a seven-day cruise on a 6-star cruise line at a very considerable discount in the spring of 2012 during the European economic crisis and just after the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground .  If your times a bit flexible, you may luck out. A travel agent can be very helpful in sniffing out the best deals.

Cruises do depend for success  on smooth water,  good weather, and capable crews.  There are storms on the Baltic, hurricanes in the Caribbean.  There is no calm-water guarantee, and no way to pull over to the shoulder of the sea until the roughness goes away.  And those pictures of the Costa Concordia are not reassuring.

Cruises can be cliquish.  Use the Social Director or equivalent to match you with other unattached pairs if you are not part of a family or tour group .Mom and I were hoping to connect with some other couples and singles during the cruise, to lighten the dependence on each other, but it didn’t happen natuarally.   When toward the end of our cruise we mentioned our wish to  the Cruise Social Director, he swept us into a group of other unattached pairs and we had a wonderful evening – we should have done this right away.

Helpful Hints:

If you are on a cruise where there are “deluxe” dining areas, rush to sign up for these the instant you arrive on the boat – we never made it to the top-of-the-line restaurant on our boat because it was completely booked by the time we arrived just an hour past the earliest boarding time. Fortunately, the other restaurant choices were delectable – no worries.

The buffet is good if you are in a hurry to eat in order to be on time for some activity; otherwise don’t waste your calories here if there is a full-service restaurant available. After our first day on the boat we never served our own lunch again.

From Russia with Mom – Day 7 – Helsinki

I awake at 6:30 (fortunately we get an hour back as we journey westward toward Copenhagen) and catch a glimpse of Finland’s World Heritage site Suomenlinna skimming by the railing – an old fort, a tower, and then we are at the port and docking.  We have a bus tour of the city scheduled;  we endeavor to be ready on time, but Mom has misplaced the key card which she needs to get on and off the boat and by the time we get to the bus they have been waiting pretty patiently for almost 15 minutes.  But everyone is very nice to a smiling nonagenarian and her escort.

Helsinki is a small city of only about 600,000 people, so the bus drives in circles to spend the time required to justify the cost of the expedition.  We see the Senate Square, the Parliament Building, pass the National Museum twice before going inside, park several blocks from the Church of the Rock and walk a few blocks.  Helsinki is all about the architecture –the gleaming white Lutheran cathedral which gives the  White City of the Baltic its nickname,  the red brick Russian Orthodox church on an opposing hill, and the eco-modern architecture of the Church of the Rock (so called because it is built into a hill so as not to disturb the neighborhood sight lines.

We end at an outdoor café by the harbor for Finnish snacks: rye flatbread with smoked reindeer and mustard; Karelli Pie – a sort of cheese pastry with diced hard-boiled egg on top, then we browse the adjacent food and craft open-air market.  After lunch Mom opts again for a nap and I go storming off up the hill to Marimekko, drawn irresistibly by the SALE 40% sign I had spotted earlier. I admire Finnish design in all its maifestations, purchase a few gifts, and amble down the warm sunny tree-lined streets full of mimes, street musicians, outdoor diners – it is like Paris without the horns and humidity.  I step into a shop to price their postcards, step out again without buying and the day is transformed.  It is pouring rain – I mean a real gully-washer – gutters overflowing, street flooded, rain-spouts fountaining… everyone is laughing at being so caught by surprise.

Luckier than some, I am wearing my nearly-waterproof windbreaker (only because it had a nice pocket for the camera) so I raise the hood, cover my purse with the Marimekko bag, and make a dash for the boat.  Fortunately I am not very far from the harbor, and there are a couple of covered arcades to shelter in.  I make it through the customs center and wait on the porch looking at the ship with a couple of other soggy but smiling passengers until a helpful and vigilant sprite from the ship spots us and comes over with a couple of huge umbrellas – so of course the deluge stops as suddenly as it began.

Tonight is Formal Night and the Captain’s Cocktail Party, so I shed my wet clothes and we dress for the occation, then go for tea in the Panorama lounge.  As we linger over our finger sandwiches, cookies, and mini-pastries, a couple scurries in from the outside promenade-  it is pouring rain again.   We retreat to our room to watch the lightning and the rain bouncing off the balcony railing.

This first evening shows off the crew:  first the cocktail party and introductions, then a full restaurant where we shared our table gregariously, then  a Musical Extravaganza –  an all-white Motown show, complete with feather boas and choreographed dance moves – I was remembering seeing the Temptations in Las Vegas years back. I talked with “Duke” , the tenor, afterward;  he said the group were somewhat limited in their dancing due to the movement of the boat. I thought “yeah, right” but now that I am typing in the quiet of my cabin I am aware of the shifting basis of the boat world I am on.

[Note: Turns out Duke Zoran has written his own blog posts about this trip – Check it out!]

Tomorrow: Stockholm and the Swedes!

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: 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.

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!

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