Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “Baltic”

From Russia with Mom – Postscript

My 4-year-old grandson was admiring the scarf I bought for his father in Finland (lots of cute cartoon reindeer)  His comments:

“Grandma went all around the world on a boat!”


“She was paddling really fast!”

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.

From Russia With Mom – Day 11 – Rostock Harbor/ Warnemunde

We arrive at port about 6AM with a tremendous grinding and bustle of engines.  From Rostock it is possible to train to Berlin, wander that city, then return by train – 6 hours round trip to wander for three.  Mom and I opt for the local bus tour of Warnemunde instead, as we have both visited Berlin, albeit decades ago.  It is a beautiful day, about 70 F. out, I can see the tram passing, see people wandering along the promenade, but  Mom doesn’t want to go out until the scheduled outing to make sure her feeling of chill and digestive unease is past – not un-anticipated, but a bit frustrating.  I resolve to go for a long bike ride when I get home.

Finally the bus ride/ walking tour – we are in the bus with the South American Contingent – only one other couple speaks English as a first language.  The guide, Irene, a sweet young thing with  wispy voice , has a hard time keeping control.

Fun: a fountain with a bunch of naked figures, in which a number of equally naked young children dance.

A Lutheran church which coopted a Catholic church in full ornate mode – somehow they adjusted, by not insisting on restoring the historic stained glass windows which were destroyed in the war.

It is stunning to realize that we are in EAST Germany – the gray side of the Berlin Wall when I last toured as a student.  Instead of the Stalinist blocks which I had seen before, we see sunny plazas, brightly-dressed people, frolicking children,  flowers – and McDonald’s and TJ Maxx.  Some Stalinist statuary remains, but mostly on a sunny day that past does not show.

After the tour, which ended up covering quite a bit of cobble-stoned pavement, Mom decided to recuperate, and I bolted for the gangplank to do a little unguided exploring.  Of course there was a souvenir mart close to the cruise ship docks, and evidently there had been some sort of civic sand sculpture competition quite recently. The theme seemed to require some reference to Warnemunde’s history;  the themes ranged from serious to sensuous. (see below).

Warnemunde city fathers

From Russia with Mom – Day 12 – Copenhagen

In my previous post I mentioned that Copenhagen is home of the Tivoli Gardens, the inspiration for Disneyland.  The whole city has somehow taken on this aspect – there is the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, now inextricably linked to the Disney movie rather than the Hans Christian Andersen tale.  There are the fairy-tale his-and-hers palaces for the Good King and Queen, complete with toy soldiers guarding them.  And there is ice cream.

I’m ensconced on the fourth floor of the Grand Hotel in Copenhagen. It was probably grander in former days, but it is certainly nicely located very near the train station and Tivoli and the famous clock. We had a bus tour of the city including the obligatory stop at the Little Mermaid statue (which actually you could see from our boat this am), a couple of palaces, and lots of medieval towers. The bus dropped us just around the corner from our hotel at the Radisson Blu (formerly the SAS Royal – still has the old signs).

We tried to lunch at the Ida Davidsen restaurant that friends had recommended but our concierge checked for us and it is closed for vacation until July 7. So instead he recommended Frk Barners Kaelder – a restaurant about two blocks away where we were able to enjoy some stupendous Danish open-face sandwiches in the company of a huge tableful of huge Danes all drinking Carlsberg by the tankard and passing around platefuls of herring, fried fish filets, and lots of condiments. Very fun, except Mom had a hard time dealing with the openfaced-ness of the sandwich.

While Mom was napping  I went over to the station two blocks away to get some kroner for the evening. The neighborhood is a bit dubious – the train station is surrounded by dozens of freshly refurbished “boutique” hotels with Danish design furniture and orchids in the lobbies, but also there is a generous sprinkling of sex shops and strip clubs.   I resolved to get to Tivoli early, find some food, admire the lights, and return decorously to our hotel via the busiest and best-lighted streets.

We walked out of the hotel intent on a scenic stroll; I took a wrong turn at the Hard Rock Cafe and the stroll turned out to be a bit too long – By the time we got to the scenic shopping streets Mom was already worn out and ready for her preprandial cordial. So we hiked back to the Library Bar at the Copenhagen Plaza Hotel by the RR station which a cosmopolitan friend  had touted as “One of the top 5 bars in the world” per Malcolm Forbes. Well, shucks – the bar was pretty and cozy and dark and lined with books and leather armchairs, but the service was so poor they ended up comping our brochetta out of embarassment, and the list of available drinks did not include any Canadian whiskey or Crown Royal, so Mom had to make do with Makers Mark on ice.

We then went to Tivoli, which is indeed charming with its thousands of tiny glass lanterns and interesting buildings – we oohed and aahed and had some authentic Danish rhubarb ice cream, ran out of steam and returned to the hotel and bed by 9PM.

So…Copenhagen – a kind of vanilla experience.  A nice king and queen, pretty national monuments, quaint old architecture, vibrant new architecture, but you can’t get to know a country from a bus. I felt more of Copenhagen in my 10 minute brisk walk to the train station to exchange money than in four hours of bus tour with photo stops and another two hours of shuffling along in step with Mom.

Guess I’m ready to come home,

From Russia with Mom – Day 10 – Ronne Harbor, Bornholm

Danish beer and kippers in Bornholm

Years ago my husband spent his summers as a bus tour guide, sometimes heading up an expedition of seniors going from New York to San Francisco.  His problem was – what do you talk about after Chicago until you get to the Rockies?  He emcee’d a number of trivia contests, draw-the-buffalo contests, sing-a-longs – anything to make the hours pass as they cruised through the open blank spaces of South Dakota and Iowa and Nebraska.

The challenge for our Baltic cruise planner was similar – on one end you have St. Petersburg – the Paris of the Baltic, glittering with history, palaces, and art.  On the other end is Copenhagen – home of the Tivoli Gardens , the historic inspiration for Disneyland.  But in between?  Once you have spent a day in Helsinki and a day in Stockholm, then what?

Our cruise planners did the best they could.  Ronne (Denmark’s laid-back resort island)  provides at least an excuse for parking the boat for awhile, and at best a real sense of what life might be like out of the urban tourist centers.  On Ronne  it would be possible to rent a bicycle and see the land from an inhabitant’s perspective.  From a bus, the experience was like flipping through postcards – stop here at the unusual round church…

Unusual round church

American expat glassblower’s studio

….stop there are the American expatriate glass-blower’s studio,

….have lunch at the Danish deli for kippers, open-face sandwiches and Danish beer (see above)……  Other than these brief emergences, we were in the tourist bubble at all times.

Still, I must not under-value the emergences.  I saw wild-flowers blooming against the seawall, smelled grass drying in the sun, ate a kipper, felt the sun’s heat radiating from the cobbles on a warm day – these will stay with me.

Wildflowers in the sun at Ronne

From Russia with Mom – Musing on Cruising

After only three days on the boat we are learning about the culture of cruising.  Life is divided between the Boat and the Bus –  cruising from port to port, followed by  at least one bus tour at each stop.  As a companion/escort for the oldest person on the boat, my goal is :Don’t be last to board the bus.  This is not easy.

In Stockholm we kept no-one waiting as we left the boat, nor after the Vasa Museum.

But we were the last on the bus after visiting the Stockholm City hall where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet each December 10.  Here is what the guide (a charming Swedish Carol Channing type)  said in her Swedish accent:  “When you exit the souvenir shop go through the arch on the left there will be your bus waiting.”

We were not the only ones who heard: “When you exit the souvenir shop, go through the arch.  On the left there will be your bus waiting.”

She meant :” When you exit the souvenir shop, go through the arch on the left.  There will be your bus waiting.”

The issue – there were two arches – one IN FRONT of the exit, as well as a much less prominent arch in the dark on the left when you exit.   So we got lost (along with Christine and Mark from Pennsylvania, bless their hearts) and were retrieved twenty minutes later by the assistant guide who was supposed to be bearing up the rear to make sure all laggards were accounted for, but somehow lost track of us. Bah!

Doing the bus tour each day feels like being part of a canned travelogue in a bubble, but I can’t leave Mom on her own, so I have abandoned the bike tours which were going to be my  variety.  The lap of luxury is still a lap – we are used to being a bit more active.

Back on the boat, at a cocktail party for first-timers we met two other sets of mother/daughter voyagers.  The 89 year old said to Mom –” so sorry to hear you have beaten me by two years – I’m not the oldest on the boat!”

Mom rapped back instantly “I’m sorry too!”  General laughter.

Mom at lunch: “There’s a statue over there – it’s a copy of something that is very familiar;  I think it’s Rodin;, can you name it?”  I look, see no statue.  “I don’t recognize a statue,” I say to her.  She gets up, goes closer to see.  The waiter mimes anxiously, as she wanders toward the deserted corner, “Is she all right?”  I mime “It’s ok.”  Mom looks about in the corner, returns .  “It was a pile of dirty napkins.  That’s AWFUL!”

There are a lot of groups, but we are not part of any.  Even the mothers-and-daughters have other family members they are with, and no invitations to join them are forthcoming  So we are spending a lot of time together.  I have much more understanding of the handicaps Mom is living with – and more admiration for the way she gallantly overlooks and surmounts them.

It is what it is.  Her eyesight and hearing seem to go in and out – she can spot a sign out of the corner of her eye “Did that say ‘teleferique’?” No, it was “telegraf” – pretty close;  and then mistake a pile of napkins for a statue by Rodin.  She can rap right back in conversation, and then not be able to hear me across the table. Meanwhile, I am learning to go at a slower pace, to listen, to think ahead, to appreciate the small comforts of a cozy robe, a sunny balcony, a reclining chair.

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?

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!

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