Thursday, September 23, 2010

Russia - Coming Home

Don't take any of the following as having any bearing whatsoever on how much I enjoyed my trip. It just seems as though as perfect as the preceding 10 days were, my travel day home was fraught with missteps, near disaster and a whole lot of hassle.

You might remember that my suitcase seemed a bit heavy but that I thought I'd taken care of it with a careful packing the day before I left. Well, in fairness to the driver who I nearly killed under the load of this bag in St. Petersburgh, one of the wheels on it had been broken in transit, so it wasn't exactly as mobile as it should be. And apparently all my working out with Jon made me not realize the suitcase was as heavy as it is, because at check-in in Moscow, they made me "repack" right there at the check-in desk, unzipping my bag for the whole world to see my dirty laundry, literally. Problem was, I'd already packed all the heaviest stuff in my carry-on, in anticipation of this ritual which I'd done before. There wasn't much more stuff I could take out of the larger suitcase and carry on. I was meant to shed 6 kilograms, about 12 pounds! In the end, the agent let me carry on a shopping bag of stuff, so Dad's fur hat, a castle replica with a music box and three sets of matroyshka dolls all came on board with me.

Moving on to immigration, you might also remember how I said I "breezed in" to Russia when I arrived? Well on departure, the immigration agent was suspect of me because I did not look like my picture. Even when I took off my glasses, they were still doubtful. (I was pretending that I'd lost some weight in the 8 years since I had that photo taken, to ease the pain of this entire experience). I'll tell you, having Russian immigration officials, four of them, criticizing your picture and entry documents is a near intestinal-releasing experience. All I needed was three stamps on three documents to send me on my way, and it took them 20 minutes and a superivsor to get those stamps. But when I finally had the documents handed back to me, hallelujah! I ran for duty-free...where I had room in my bags to buy exactly nothing! Oh well.

Fast forward a bit to Munich, where I "only" had 90 minutes to connect to my flight to Boston. I had to go through security again though, despite never leaving the secured zone of the airport; literally off one plane, on to the bus to the terminal and into the terminal and directly on to the next plane. But the security agents saw the two Faberge eggs (replicas, not the real thing, but they apparently look like primative bomb parts) in my carry-on and, you guessed it, I had to unpack the entire carry-on for inspection. I actually think this was more the satisfaction of a bet between the two security guards, because while they were both looking at the x-ray of this bag, I heard them say twice "Faberge", so my guess is they were just trying to prove that's what they really were. But in my eye, this engorged carry-on wasn't meant to be anything but unpacked once, and that was supposed to be in the comfort of home, but I did it. I had no choice. And I repacked it too. And still managed to make the flight, even with a toilet and water stop!

And finally...Munich is one of those airports where the plane can taxi forever to take off. I mean we taxied so long that at one point I expected to look out the window and see Logan on one side and the Tobin on the other. We finally arrived at what looked like the take-off runway, and then the pilot came over the PA and, as is customary on Lufthansa, made the announcement first in German and then in English. All I heard at first was "blahblahblah PROBLEM blahblahblah PROBLEM blahblahblah PROBLEM". I knew something was awry even before he announced in English that there was a strong electrical burning smell in the forward galley and we'd be returning to the parking stand to investigate. Excellent. Long story short, it took them an hour to identify a coffee maker that was smoking (as in burning, not lighting a Marlboro) and they tossed that off-board on to the tarmac. Literally. Then another hour to confirm all other systems were go. Then we taxied again and took off. The 8 hour flight became 10 1/2 hours. But finally I arrived home. Safe and sound. I supposed it is better to find the smoking coffee maker before take off than somewhere mid-Atlantic.

Looking back even while still a bit jetlagged, the entire trip on the ground in Russia was just so wonderful, that while temporarily inconvenienced, I would not let the travel day jade my experience. Stuff happens. I am home safe and sound and with a wonderful trip under my belt.

Stay tuned for more...I have a few thoughts for longer essays on some of the things I blogged about in brief. Thank you for reading along with me though and for all of the feedback via email! You're fanning the flame for future travel writing!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Russia, last day

Subtitled: Kremlin crawl, changing of the guard groupie, underground strings and the tears that they bring

Last full day in Moscow dawned again bright and sunny, and blissfully remained so all day. We were in and out of doors for most of the day. I started the day off as I did yesterday, with the massive breakfast buffet, learning it is better to stick with the mixed berry granola, and a cappuccino at my local Starbucks. Irina showed up right at 9:30 and we walked to the Kremlin for our pre-assigned entrance time of 10:00.

I thanked Irina profusely for the recommendation of last night’s dinner and said that I was contemplating a return tonight. She shook her head and said “ah, no, you leave it be; you cannot repeat perfection.” And she promised to come up with something good for me tonight.

I should preface my telling of the Kremlin tour by saying the Kremlin is not Red Square. It is where the president works first and foremost, so security is tight and very strict. It is not free and open to the public at any old time. There are permitted entry hours and you can book ahead. You also have to go through quite a few metal detectors. We waited in line sandwiched between two elderly tour groups and I silently thanked the travel gods for gently nudging me in the direction of MIR. Bullet dodged there!

Our first stop in the Kremlin was the Armory. This was a fanciful trip through the history of Russia’s tsars and emperors, where they had collections of silver, ostentatious gifts from other countries, original carriages that they used. You can tell with my rather brief description that, while I did enjoy seeing it, it was not the highlight of the visit. What I enjoyed quite a bit more were the dresses worn by Catherine the Great and Alexandra, the last Romanov tsarina. Catherine’s in particular were particularly noteworth because those she wore when she had just come from Germany had about a 12 inch waist (not kidding!) and after 20 years of Russian cooking and good living, well, it was quite a bit bigger. The other part of the collection that was just beautiful was the Faberge egg collection. There are so few in the world (I believe 36?) and about a half dozen are here; the rest are in private collections. They were stunning. That’s all I can say about them without using every other insufficient superlative in my vocabulary.

An unexpected side trip in the Kremlin occurred when Irina got access for me into the Diamond Fund, which ordinarily has to be booked ahead. This is a vault deep under the Kremlin that houses, among other things, the crown jewels. She felt it was important that I see them since I’ve seen Great Britain’s and they are compared to those and the Shah’s Jewels in Iran. Since it was timed entry, there were maybe 20 people total in both rooms. After getting buzzed through two vault doors by security guys who looked like Secret Service, I found myself in the first room which held uncut and cut gems that are part of the collection, not in any particular jewelry settings. It was almost unbelievable that these were actually real because they were so big. Any gem you can imagine was here in one way shape or form: emeralds as big as a plum, gorgeous smoky quartz, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, amethysts, lapis, jade, opal, pearl…it was endless. This room also contains jewels set into pins, tiaras, brooches in the last 20 years or so, but those are only for exhibition and no one wears them.

The Emperor’s Crown though, and the scepter and orb, were just incredible. It was so hard to comprehend they were real. I cannot even begin to describe how blinding the diamonds were, how beautiful the Orlov diamond on the tip of the scepter was. And I got to stand there by myself and just admire. It was surreal. (In London you get whisked by the crown jewels on a moving staircase and cannot get so close or spend any time admiring them).

After the Armory tour, we walked along the Kremlin walls and found Cathedral Square, so named for the several churches that border it. (I learned that they call their churches cathedrals if they have an iconostasis separating the worshippers from the altar. If there is no iconostasis, it is just a chapel, and usually only has one dome.) There was only one church I had my heart set on getting into, and it was the one that is on the cover of my guidebook. I was anxious to see if I’d have to ask to go or if that was on the itinerary; surely we would not visit all 7 churches. I was thrilled to discover that Assumption Cathedral was the first we were to visit, and that was my church. The exterior of the church is pretty unassuming: mostly white with a few golden domes. But inside, the frescos are floor to ceiling, wall to wall and they are exceptional. On top of that it has one of the most impressive iconostasis that I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many ever, but I’ve seen quite a few this week). Taking it all in was almost sensory overload but still very impressive. I was thrilled. Irina said that this is “pretty typical” of Russian Orthodox church, which seems like a lot of work to me given how many churches there are, but it’s an interesting fact.

We walked the rest of the Kremlin area and she took me into one more church only to show me the special exhibition of Lalique glass that was there. That was pretty interesting and nice that she thought that I would like to do that.

I was growing weary as by now it was nearly 1:45 and it had been a long time since the fuel from breakfast was running out. So we walked to GUM and went upstairs to their food court (which, thankfully, is a far cry from the food court in the malls at home). She suggested an “Asian” place but I sort of balked at it. Then I realized that their idea of Asian is actually Turkish, not Japanese or Chinese like I expected. So I had what she had: mutton on a spicy rice pilaf with tomato and onion and I ordered a side of Russian potato salad, which was pretty much like ours.

Fully refortified, we headed back out and did the rest of the tour of Red Square. There wasn’t much I didn’t already know about it, so it was a brief pass through and she left me at the Historical Museum, which we agreed I would see on my own. This was the end of my time with Irina, and she hugged me and thanked me. She said that clients like me are the reason she keeps doing this; it was a pleasure for her to show someone so mentally and emotionally invested what her country is all about. I think Mom and Dad would be proud, because both of my guides said this about me. It’s sort of like bringing home a report card that says “Amy is a joy to have in class.” But really, it is just my natural inquisitiveness and passion to learn. I asked Irina for her address because I want to send her the book Make Way for Ducklings, since she showed me those statues yesterday and had never read the book.

Anyway, I did go through the History museum, but without a guide it is sort of useless. None of the exhibit labels are in English. Some of the rooms have one card explaining everything in every case in the room, but it’s tied to the wall, so visitors can’t walk around the room with it. I considered it a wash and left after the second floor. If you’re vaguely interested, it seemed to trace the history of Russia back to Paleolithic times; I am not kidding, there were displays of rock from thousands of years B.C.!

One of the things we passed by earlier in the day was the eternal flame which is in Alexander Garden and commemorates all who have fallen while serving the country. It is guarded by three guards, two of whom do not move an inch the entire hour they are on duty. At the top of every hour, they change guards. Irina suggested that I come back for that later in the day, as it had just happened when we were strolling by.

So at 4:00 I was there, in the spot Irina said was best. At about 10 of 4:00, the main guard comes out from near his guardhouse and inspects the two on either side of the eternal flame. Then he returns to the guardhouse and from way down the path on the right, three freshly rested guards come goose-stepping down the long path. I will tell you, the silence when they approach is deafening. And seeing them march gave me chills. The sound of their feet hitting the pavement just resonates in you. They swap out the two immobile guards, who then goose-step back the way the new guards came. In all, it takes about 6 minutes total. Not like in London where there are bands and a parade, more like Arlington National Cemetery where it is subdued and serious. But I was hooked. It’s sort of an adrenalin rush for me to see them approaching that way. And I noticed that when the old guards retire, they go first to the flame and pay respects, turn and face front and center toward the crowd, then goose-step off. Oh yeah, I decided right then that I was coming back, front and center.

So left to my own devices then for an hour, I went shopping because while I didn’t want a Faberge egg before I saw them, now I did. Fortunately I only had to look in two shops in GUM before I found the replica of the one I liked in the Kremlin collection. And feeling a bit peckish, I stopped at a blini shop and had a blini filled with chocolate. Sigh.

I was back and in my appointed spot at 4:50. I saw the first inspection of the outgoing guard. I also made friends with two older Canadian businessmen while we were waiting. I managed to give them the skinny on what they needed to see in the 6 hours they had before they were jetting off to St. Petersburg, but I convinced them that they needed to stay 5 minutes to see what was about to happen. And the changing of the guard happened again, just as before, and I snapped a marvelous photo of it when the guards turned forward. Just awesome.

So at 5:00 I headed back to the hotel and scoped out the restaurant that Irina suggested, a Russian place called Kitezh. It was less than a block from the hotel, so I went back to change and spent some time organizing my bags for tomorrow. It turns out I am in better shape than I thought and shouldn’t kill my driver tomorrow (or leave him with a hernia) the way I’ve redistributed my loot between suitcase and carry-on.

Dinner at Kitezh was nice. It was not nearly as good, or as expensive, as last night’s meal, but this was really a great way to end my trip. The décor is old Russia, very rustic with thick wooden tables and farmhouse style walls and ceilings. The waitstaff all wear linen rustic “costumes” which were sort of cute. I started with a glass of kvass, which is a non-alcoholic drink made from fermented bread. It tasted like an apple cider but not as sweet and not like apples, if that makes sense. I decided the rest of the meal would be a greatest hits experience from this trip, so I had salmon caviar, again, and beef stroganoff, again. I know, not terribly creative and not daring (there was bear, moose, bunny and deer on the menu, but come on now!) but I wanted a meal I would savor and enjoy, and who knows how long it will be until I have either of those again. Dessert was the “Kitezh fruit roll” which on its face sounds a bit non-specific. It turns out it is like a jelly roll with sour cream (bless their hearts) and strawberry and kiwi in it. With espresso and a glass of wine, the bill was 1640 ruples, or about $55 plus tip.

I decided to end my stay where I started it, at Red Square. The sun had just gone down and I made my way through the underpass the gets pedestrians across the 8 lane thoroughfare separating the neighborhood my hotel is in from Red Square. I was not even halfway through the underpass when I heard the string octet. I had heard them several times during my stay in Moscow but somehow never seen them. Tonight they were right where I would pass them twice. And twice, I stood and listened, for just one more. Again, and again. They grabbed me with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, kept me with Beethoven and some Mozart. Once I empted my change into their hat. A second time I threw them some bills. But Vivaldi started the emotions rolling and I realized that this was it. Tomorrow at this time I will be closer to home than I am to here. These 8 guys and girls in torn jeans, baseball caps and sneakers, all playing classical music’s greatest hits, will be here when I’m not. And that really overwhelmed me.

But I shook off the tears and continued my way back to Red Square, and realized it was 7:50, 10 minutes before the last changing of the guard. You guessed it, I went back. I wanted to see what happens at the end of the day. Long story short, the flame is brighter in the twilight and all the guards go home for the day. So in that sense it is very unlike Arlington National Cemetery, where they guard that tomb day and night.

I took one more long lap around Red Square, taking mental pictures this time more so than digital pictures. It was a long, drawn out goodbye, but I figured I’d waited so long to get here, I needed to leave when I was ready.

Back here in the hotel in the rock hard bed, I am extremely thankful for these 10 days. They far exceeded my expectations and my dreams. There is not one single thing I would have wanted to be different. Now I just want to hug my family and my boy and sleep in my own bed tomorrow night. With a mere 17 hours of travel between now and then, I bid Rossiya a fond “do svidanya”!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Russia Day Eight

Subtitled: Soviets past, Ducklings, still more art and the perfect meal

Today dawned with blue skies and bright sun, but Irina warned me to carry my umbrella anyway to keep the rain away. At least half of our day was to be spent outside, so she wanted to do her best to keep make it that way.

I forgot to describe breakfast here at the Hotel Budapest, and really must because as a breakfast person, I find it ideal. I was pleasantly surprised to find three types of granola in addition to the standard rice crispies and corn flakes. I opted for berry granola both days so far, but may go with vanilla or chocolate the next couple days. There is a hot buffet with sausages, eggs, hash browns and oatmeal. There are also several types of bread and pastries, yogurt and fruit salad, juices and coffee or tea. I usually have the cereal with yogurt, fruit and a pastry. That sort of breakfast will hold me over until a late lunch, believe it or not.

This morning I got up a half hour earlier to so I could walk to the Starbucks I stumbled over near my hotel last night. I had a cappuccino, which tasted so good after going without for so long.

Our driver picked us up at 9:30 sharp and we drove to Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. Given that it was a Sunday morning and no one was on the roads, we zipped right there. Irina said she had a surprise for me nearby that she wanted to show me. We parked across the lake from the convent, which made for a wonderful photo opportunity, but within the park we were in, there was a set of statues that would be familiar to most Bostonians: Robert McCloskey’s Make Way For Ducklings statues. Apparently Barbara Bush gifted them to the children of Russian some years ago and this is their home now. I instantly recognized them and felt a rush of homesickness, oddly enough. Irina was relieved that I did indeed know them, because she says so many Americans do not! It makes me wonder if it is not local popular culture in any case.

The Novodevichy Convent essentially has a history of taking in wives or sisters of tsars once the tsars get tired of them. The women would be sent there to live out their lives, essentially becoming “dead” to Russia when they take the veil. The grounds is made up of a cloister, the Smolensk Cathedral, a belfry, a small gorgeously decorated chapel and a second more rundown church, all surrounded by a fortress (god forbid these women make a break for it!). The convent is still operating, as is the cathedral. Irina asked me to don my headscarf and we went inside for the service, since it was that time on Sunday morning. We went in just as the faithful were taking communion and sharing bread with each other. The choir was just beautiful (but professionally trained and hired, so they ought to be) and the symbolism of these people coming together every Sunday, obviously seeing each other week after week was touching.

We left the convent and went around the corner to the cemetery. This is the place where anyone who is anyone of modern Russia seems to be buried (except for those I saw in St. Petersburg last week). The cemetery serves almost as a historical museum of popular Russia. The trend seems to be to make the stone on the gravesite indicative of what the person is known for. A pediatrician is represented by a carved likeness of himself holding a baby. A pianist has a baby grand headstone. Military officers have busts of themselves decorated with all of their medals. Artists have photographs of themselves and an engraving of their theater’s logo. One ballerina had an exquisitely carved statue of herself in white marble representing her in best known role. The popular people I knew that we saw were the author Chekhov, Boris Yeltsin, Raisa Gorbachev and Nikita Kruschev. Irina said that nowadays a governmental commission decides who gets buried in this cemetery because demand for that honor is high and space is running low. It really is a wonderful walk through Russia’s culture though and quite an experience to see.

Our driver stopped half way between the cemetery and the Pushkin Museum on Arbat Street so we could pick up a quick lunch. Irina knew of a Fresh Foods shop and we had tasty roll-up sandwiches and a drink. We got to chat and inevitably the conversation came around to the economy and politics. What was interesting to me is that Irina says that all of her American clients tend to be Democrat and she has never met a Republican. She asked me what I feel about Obama now and how I would vote in 2 years. A long conversation ensued and I think she was surprised at how frank I was with my opinions. She said that Medvedev is up for reelection at the same time, so 2012 should be a good year. Russia, she said, has split priorities for that year with both the election and the Olympics in Sochi.

One other thing that was interesting is that she does not save for retirement. She said generally Russians do not trust banks or investment houses, so if they have extra money, they spend it on something that will last, like a house or car. I asked her what she will do when she retires since right now the government does not support anyone either, and she says that the pension system has not been fully developed yet in the new Russia, so she hopes it will be sorted out by then. She was certainly not terribly concerned!

Our next stop after lunch was the Pushkin Museum, which is a collection that is split between two buildings. The older building houses a collection of plaster casts of popular sculpture and a wonderful Egyptian antiquities collection as well as a revolving exhibition space. The exhibition on show today was a collection of Russian art from an Armenian museum. While all of the labels on the art in this exhibition was in Cyrillic, I was able to identify several of my new favorites from this trip by sounding out some of the names. I am quite pleased with myself!

This part of the museum has quite a collection of plaster casts, which often gives the museum the reputation of only having “copies”, which is not true. There is however a large room that is made to replicate the main room of the Bargello in Florence, and has a life sized replica of Michelangelo’s David. There is also a room that has copies of many of Michelangelo’s other pieces, including the Pieta, Moses, Bruges Madonna, and the Medici chapel sculptures. That was pretty cool. The Pushkin also has six Rembrandts which were just awesome in every sense, but not as spectacular as Danae or the Return of the Prodigal Son which I saw last week.

The new building house painting and sculpture that was collected by two wealthy Russians. It covers pre-impressionism, Impressionism (my favorite) and post-Impressionism. I think I really perked up most when we entered the floor of Impressionism. The first painting that popped out to me was an absolutely breathtaking Degas, the Blue Dancers. It is the Degas masterpiece in this collection and quite possibly the most beautiful Degas I have ever seen. It uses his deep blue pastel and it hard to say whether this is really four separate dancers dancing, or one single dancer that Degas has just chosen to represent as she pirouettes around his drawing paper. Needless to say, I loved this.

Anything after the Degas would have been gravy. But there were several other Degas, seven Renoirs, six Rodins. One Rodin, Love Running Away, I had actually never seen before and it was very alluring. There were five Van Goghs, including one that actually got sold while he was alive, one painting of his doctor in Arles that was discovered on the floor of a chicken coop (apparently the doctor didn’t know what he had been given by his patient, and used it to patch a hole!) and one very interesting unusual setting for Van Gogh, a circle of prisoners pacing in a prison courtyard. I was impressed, for sure. I was also smitten with 11 Monets which were much better quality than what I had seen in the Hermitage. There was a Vertheuil landscape that was pretty, a very nice white waterlillies and two Rouen cathedral scenes.

When I was done here, Irina walked me to Arbat Street where she left me for the day. She gave me several options to return the hotel, including two walks and a Metro trip. Ultimately I opted for the Metro, only because I had been up on my feet and walking since 9:00 a.m.

I walked up and down Arbat, which is a pedestrian street with various souvenir shops, restaurants, two Starbucks and the only Hard Rock Café in Russia. I did the requisite Hard Rock shopping and walked back Arbat to a Georgian restaurant that Irina recommended. This, my friends, turned out to be THE meal of the vacation, I suspect.

You may recall that I fell for Georgian food last week in St. Petersburg. This meal though, exponentially surpassed that meal. This was a meal I will look back on in days, weeks, months and wish to do it all over. Bear with me here…

The restaurant is set in a very kitschy looking “typical Georgian style country house”, said Irina. Inside, it looks like the inside of a water mill, with a water wheel, an interior river with big fish and turtles and hard wood planks and chunky dark wooden furniture. I flipped through the menu, which thankfully had English subtitles that seemed a bit shaky in translation at best. Let’s just say that I am hoping that “mutton in bowels” really means “bowls”. I took the safer choice and ordered for an appetizer a Georgian cheese baked in a shallow iron dish with diced tomato and Georgian spices (which are spicy, but not necessarily peppery hot, not like a jalapeno but more like paprika). I also ordered the stewed veal in a tomato broth with onions and a lightly spiced tomato broth. This came with a thicker consistency but lighter texture pita-type bread that I ate by tearing it open and spooning the meat into. I did order a side of mashed potatoes, which normally can hold their own in any meal, but the rest of this was so good, they stayed mostly uneaten! I also had a glass of house red wine and a bottle of water.

Somehow, the appetizer came at the same time as the meal, and the cheese, the cheese! Oh my! It was steaming hot and had just a little bit of browning on the top. It tasted like a cross between a strong goat cheese with a touch of bleu in it. The veal was tender and juicy and with quarters of the bread rounds was just yummy. But can you even imagine the cheese WITH the veal in the bread??? Oh I can, and I did. Good Glory! I firmly believe that when you reach the Pearly Gates, you will be served this meal. Seriously. It was that good.

Oh but we are not done yet, my friends. The waitress, who was the sweetest and friendliest I have had here, asked if I wanted dessert. I asked her to bring me whatever is the typical Georgian dessert and a cappuccino. After a little bit of a wait, she delivered a layer cake that was presented just amazingly on a large plate, with swirls of honey, drops of berries and cocoa powder, with something written in Georgian on the top of the plate (hopefully it wasn’t “Do you know how much you’ll be working out to burn this meal off?”) I should have asked, but instead I pulled a very Japanese-tourist move and pulled out my camera. I put it on Food setting (seriously, my camera has that) and took two shots. It looked too pretty to eat, but to hell with that, I was going in for the kill.

The cake was alternating layers of cake soaked in a hazelnut liquor and mocha mousse, and covered in what I think was something similar to toffee shavings. Hallelujah, I reached the promised land! While this ended up being my most expensive meal ($80 plus tip), it was well beyond “worth it”. I am so tempted to go back tomorrow night for my last meal in Russia!

That was it for today. I successfully took the Metro back to the hotel and crashed on the rock solid bed at 8:00. Tomorrow is Kremlin and Red Square tour and that’s it.

As the vacation draws to a close I really am feeling sad that I am leaving and I find myself actually not wanting to leave; I feel I have so much more to see and do. I have loved this more than I thought I could. It has ended up being a better experience than I expected, one that I will treasure for all I saw, all I learned and for the two wonderful guides I had that made my experience that much better.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Russia Day Seven

Subtitled: No big hug, Russian life and Snickers in Red Square

In case you didn’t feel the undertones in yesterday’s blog, Moscow is not St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, to me, at least felt a bit like Europe. I don’t remember if I mentioned it or not, but it was a cross between Vienna for some of its architecture and Venice for its canals and every day use of palaces that anywhere else would be turned into museums.

Moscow is not warm. Moscow is cold. And I don’t mean that in a terribly derogatory sense by any means. But if you look at cities I have loved, they are the type that make you feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about them (Rome, Edinburgh, Florence). Moscow does not do “warm and fuzzy”. There's no big hug. Moscow does a lot of grey cement, block structures. Moscow does boulevards too wide to cross on foot. Moscow holds on to history and displays it in everything it does. This is a city that has an insane amount of pride in its history and will not, or is it cannot, let it go. Now, that’s exactly why I like it.

Back when I started this whole crazy 40th birthday trip, I wrote that I had a huge hole in my world history education. Now that I know more about what Russia and its people have been through, I say “why the hell shouldn’t they show this all off?” I can appreciate the fact that there is Victory Park where military battles won are held in high esteem, the fact that there are military statues and soldiers and coats of arms on just about every building and monument that isn’t nailed down. Well, they’re all nailed down, but you get my drift. I’m just now realizing that they are just immensely proud and they cannot forget. They cannot forget the millions of people that died during World War II (which they call the Great Patriotic Battle of 1941-1945), in numerous wars against Turkey, against Napoleon and the French. Holy cow, Napoleon was here? See, I didn’t know that. What’s funnier is that the Russians commemorate their victories over Napoleon with triumphal arches that so closely mirror the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Napoleon’s celebration of his own victories. Ha!

So let’s just say that yesterday I wasn’t feeling the love. Today at least I understand it better. And I owe a lot of that understanding to Irina, my new guide who introduced me to Moscow. It was a gentle introduction, an easy way to say hello and get to know the city. I will admit right now, this city is just too vast for me to have done on my own. Things I wanted to see like KGB (sorry, FSB now) and Lubyanka prison are just out of the way and would be a special trip with nothing else nearby. For once, it was actually better to do it as a drive-by, which we did. We spent about 3 hours driving around and seeing a lot of the city and even things I hadn’t even planned on.

We of course started off driving by Red Square and the Kremlin walls. The Kremlin, in case you aren’t aware, is a fortress and among many other things including churches, armory and museum, it houses the current seat of the government (meaning, Medvedev works there). We also saw the White House, which is where the Prime Minister (Putin) works. Irina also walked through Victory Park with me, which is a large memorial/museum/obelisk/military park that is meant to honor those who served or were lost in the Great Patriotic War. The other thing I learned is that the Kremlin and Red Square are two separate spaces. Adjacent, but separate.

One of our longer stops was actually at this park, which I think was meant to be a quick walk through. At the far end of the park was a local arts fair. Different arts groups from around the city get together on Saturdays and show and sell their various craft works. Irina thought it would be a non-touristy experience to walk through the different booths and in so doing, I became a minor celebrity. They were all pretty impressed that an American bothered to stop and talk to them and look at their work. A local journalist wanted to talk to me to see how this crafts fair compared to those in America. I deferred on that question, because I honestly don’t know!

We walked our way back to me our driver (who, by the way, is not even a figment of hotttt Sergei!) and we immediately got stuck in traffic. I should say that on weekend days like today in Moscow, the streets are practically empty. We were zipping around the city like we owned the place. During the week though, it is pretty much bumper to bumper traffic everywhere until well past sunset. In this case though, traffic was stopped for a political motorcade, which our driver quickly figured out was Medvedev himself making his way from the presidential home up the road to our left to the Kremlin which was down the road to our right. We were second in line at the intersection, so I could see the half dozen or so chaser police cars clearing paths at well over 60 mph! A few minutes later another set of police cars then 3 armored cars surrounding a limo went whooshing by. It was all pretty impressive, but holding things up for about 15 minutes overall seemed a bit much!

I think Irina and the driver wanted to take advantage of light traffic because we fit in a visit to Church of Christ Our Savior too, which we had planned for Monday. This would save us having to drive or take the Metro out to see it. This church was a church that took 40 years to build. Then in the 30s the Soviets wanted to build a palace there, so they tore it down in 40 minutes. The palace never came to fruition, so it became a swimming pool until the 90s, when it was rebuilt in 5 years. The exterior is white with the shining gold domes, but the interior was really pretty. Instead of just the iconostasis (screen with icons at the altar), there is a smaller chapel at the front of the church with icons built into it. A church within a church, if you will. Alas, I have no pictures as it is a working church and that’s not allowed.

What was really cool was seeing the Olympic stadium from the 1980 Summer Games and the ski jump that is used to practice on right nearby. The entire area around Olympic stadium has become a massive sports complex.

Near the overlook where we saw the stadium is Moscow State University, the most prestigious college in the country, with over 70,000 students enrolled, half of whom are Muscovites. How are those for facts? Actually what is interesting about this was that the main building is one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, one of seven skyscrapers built by Stalin to expand Moscow’s skyline. This is the prettiest of the seven, if that architecture style can be called “pretty”.

Around this time we headed back toward the Tretyakov Gallery where we would spend a good part of the afternoon. But first, about Irina. We got a chance to talk quite a bit. Her English is definitely not as strong as Katia’s and I would say she is a bit older than I am. Oddly enough, she lived in Boston (Somerville) for a year back in 1991, so she is familiar with things like the T, Harvard and clam chowder, all of which she used today to put things in perspective for me. She was astonished at first to hear this was my celebratory birthday trip that I’d wanted to do for ages because she didn't think there was much here to make it a "dream" trip, but then after a while she said that she understood my interest. I have been very fortunate to have had two great guides. I’m really looking forward to the rest of my itinerary with her in the next couple days!

The other point she shared with me that I found a relief and perhaps validation that I have made the right choice. She asked me what made me choose MIR Corp to put my trip together. I told her that I’d gotten quotes on itineraries from both MIR and Exeter International (the top two Russian travel specialists) and that Exeter came in almost $6,000 higher. She was flabbergasted. She said she’s worked for both and there is nothing different she’d do for one or the other, so I’m getting the same tour services I would with Exeter. So other than the 5-star hotels (which believe me, after this bed, I’m sort of nostalgic for 5-star!), I’m getting exactly what I’d have gotten with Exeter. Great news!

Anyway, back to Tretyakov Gallery. We started there with lunch. Irina pointed out to me some typical Russian specialties, so I had chicken baked in a cracker crumb mixture, a Russian omelet (don’t ask, I just wanted protein!) and a cabbage salad with cranberries, which essentially was like cole slaw with no mayo and those weren’t cranberries, I think they were more like lynchberries (is that a word?). Anyway, it was good to sit and relax a bit before we went through the museum.

Non-museum types may want to move along for a few paragraphs. I loved this museum! It is such an odd thought to go into a museum not knowing a single artist or work and come away completely smitten. As I mentioned earlier, there was indeed a shift from painting icons to painting non-religious works on canvas. But artists were so used to 1) painting on wood (as icons could only be painted on wood) and 2) painting portraits of icons that the first attempts to do otherwise were, you guessed it, portraits on wood! For the first 50 years or so it seems that all anyone painted was portraits. No landscapes, no seascapes, no still lifes. Then once artists got exposed to art from Holland and Italy in particular, they started to expand their horizons. And since they were really learning from where they studied, you see a lot of Rembrandt-esque, Vermeer-esque, Monet-esque type work. Nothing terribly original.

I did fall hard for two artists in particular. The first was Repin. His works were so dramatic and told such a story that I just could not take my eyes off of them. His Ivan the Terrible Killing His Son blew me away. And then there was Vrubel, who has an entire room all to himself. He reminds me so much of a cross between a Van Gogh (for the colors he uses) and Klimt (for the look of successionist art). My sister will have a fit when she hears this, but when I said he reminded me of Klimt a bit, Irina said he was a contemporary of Klimt’s so that totally made sense. Just...wow!

Irina is really sweet and doesn’t seem to want to leave me on my own much. Rather than abandon me at the museum and have me make my way back to the hotel on my own, she gave me an hour in the museum by myself and then took me on the Metro right back here, which I thought was great. I threw my museum guidebooks and umbrella in the room and went back out on my own, determined to see the inside of St. Basil’s, despite the fact that Fodors said it is not worth it. Well, they were right, it’s not.

I meandered around Red Square a bit, noshing on a Snickers bar as I was feeling a bit peckish (how decadent is that, anyway? Strolling through Red Square eating a damn candy bar…if only I’d had candy corn, it’d be even better!) I decided then to take a pass through GUM department store. It took me about 10 seconds to realize it’s not one store but actually a collection of several stores, many with names you’d recognize (Burberry, Hermes, Puma). It is more like a mall than a single store. But let me tell you, if you ever do make your way to Moscow, check out GUM’s food department. Good lord, it goes on forever and there isn’t much you can’t buy there! Heavenly!

I then started to head back out of Red Square to find some dinner, and I heard singing coming out of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. I wasn’t sure if I could or should go in, but I followed another non-headscarf wearing woman in. Now another thing I learned is that Russians worship either standing or kneeling, so there are no chairs or benches in any church. They can also get about 10 times as many people into the floor space. This tiny little church was packed. And might warm, and smelling of incense. But the sense of community and belief and the music that carried them all in there was really heartwarming.

Color me crazy, but I was still full from lunch, so I only had a bowl of borsch (which I am really loving) and a chocolate banana blini for dinner at a Teremok stand I found. I also came across my first Starbucks in Russia. Oh how I ache for a frappucino!

I managed to take some night shots in Red Square tonight, so hopefully those came out as good as the ones from St. Petersburg.

That’s it for today…it was eventful! A bit of a lie in tomorrow as we don’t leave here till

Friday, September 17, 2010

Russia The Other Half of Day Six

Now I’m here. It is pretty humbling, I’ll tell you. Let’s rewind. The train ride was fine. It went by pretty quickly and having free wireless helped. We ended up about a half hour late, which was eating into the time I wanted to spend doing things tonight. To add to the delays, my driver never showed. I waited about 20 minutes and gave up. I figured I could spend the rest of the weekend standing and waiting in the train station (which was pretty Soviet era run down) or I could make my own way to the hotel.

If I thought St. Petersburg was culture shock, I’m glad I did not start my vacation here. St. Petersburg felt like an extension of Europe; it most closely felt like Vienna to me. Here so far looks and feels like no where I've ever been. Buildings are just huge and blocky, all grey concrete, at least where I am. There is absolutely no English anywhere. In St. Petersburg you’d see some translations in the metro or on some street signs. Here there is nothing. There were also dire warnings in my guidebook about taking taxis. But at this point, I really had no choice. I bargained a fare and got here around 6:30. I dropped my stuff and headed right back out.

Red Square and the Kremlin, on a map, are about 3 blocks due south of my hotel. However, streets here are about 8 lanes wide, and tough to cross. I had to walk 6 blocks east to cross and then cut back. But all along I could see the red brick of the walls of where I was headed. I finally crossed over and walked right up to the gates of the Kremlin. I was just so incredibly anxious to see it, I could barely contain myself. Finally through the wrought iron fence of the gate, I could catch a peek at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Holy cow. Then I smiled my face off as I walked across Red Square towards it, passing GUM department store, Lenin’s tomb and a few towers on the way. Honestly I can’t believe I’m here.

St. Basil’s looks completely not real. I feel like I’ve walked on to a movie set. The colors are so vibrant and it is just massive. I can’t wait to get into the Kremlin and see all the churches there. I can catch peeks at some of the domes but not all of them and won’t get to the Kremlin until Monday.

At this point, it was nearly 8:00 so I scrapped my plans to go to Arbat and headed to Yolki Palki, a chain I’d seen in St. Petersburg that Katya said had decent Russian food. It was really pretty good to be honest. I had red caviar with warm rolls. Katya told me to spread soft butter on the warm rolls and then top with caviar, and I have to say it was delicious! Then I had stewed beef with cranberry sauce and honeyed chili potatoes, both of which were good. I finished with cherry struedel, which was tasty. Service here was really spotty but it filled the need.

Back at the Hotel Budapest now, which is definitely leftover from the Soviet times. Never, ever had I felt a bed so hard! This will be an interesting 4 nights sleep! It seems quiet though and is about 10 times larger than the guesthouse I was in in St. Petersburg. I do have a much bigger shower though, so that’s something!

Internet here is 410 rubles for an hour (about $13), so I’ll just log in to blog, post photos and quickly check in with my family.

City tour tomorrow and then Tretyakov Gallery with my guide.

Russia Half Way Through Day Six

Subtitled: Dead artists, nearly-dead driver and faster than the speed of light

Slept well and slept in this morning. I tell you, that hotel is the quietest I’ve ever stayed in. I didn’t hear a peep any night I stayed there.

I partook in the same breakfast as always. I missed the blini which were a surprise addition yesterday. The nice lady cook wasn’t there today, so they must not do them without her. After breakfast I managed to get all of my luggage closed and locked, so I considered it a win and went off to do something that did not involve adding to my load (aka shopping) in the three hours I had until my driver came for me.

Reading the Fodors guide last night, I saw that they very highly recommended the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, which is the highest status monastery in the country. There are only three that are given this high status, and this was one. It is also where Alexander Nevsky himself is buried but he and I did not manage to come eye to eye, which I’ll get to momentarily.

I also surveyed the map last night and wasn’t thrilled by walking that much to get there, so I ventured off on my first metro ride here. I bought two tokens, dropped one in the turnstile and made my way to the metro lines. This is where learning my Cyrillic alphabet really paid off. I am pretty adept at navigating subways/metros, so I "just" had to identify in Cyrillic the last stop on the line in the direction I want to travel. Then find that line going in that direction. What threw me is that when I got to the platform, all the passengers are standing and waiting at what looks like elevator doors. Odd. So I queued up too. The subway stop behind the doors, the doors open and these elevator doors open, and we boarded that way. I saw other lines where this was not the case, but this particular line was like that. The escalators are long, like in Washington DC (Hello Veritgo!) but otherwise the metro in St. Petersburg was pretty unremarkable.

So I arrived at the correct stop and walked to the monastery which was right across the street. Fodors says you have to pay to get into each cemetery on the front of the park where the monastery is. I wanted to visit one of them because of the famous people buried there. So I paid 200 rubles (about $6.75) to get in there. This was a really quaint pretty cemetery. First grave I found was Dostoyevsky’s. Then I followed the path around the back and found “musician’s corner” where, among others, were the graves of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Call me a geek, but I loved that.

Unfortunately after that it was sort of anti-climactic. Fodors says visiting the rest of the grounds is free, but it’s not. I had to pay 130 rubles (about $4.35) more to get near the churches, which I couldn’t get into without a headscarf. I really should have known better, but I hadn’t used one all week and didn’t have my scarf with me this morning as it was safely, tightly packed into my suitcase. Oh well. No tomb of Nevsky for me. Fodors also says the monks bake their own bread there and direct you to it, but that proved false as well, at least today. So no Nevsky and no bread, it was time to bail on this place. This was definitely not a “Fodors Choice” experience as the guidebook said it would be!

I reversed course back to Nevsky Prospekt via the metro. I came across another Teremok and since I didn’t know how long it would take to get lunch on the train, I had my last blini with cream cheese and pineapple. Very cool.

My driver was prompt and lugged said suitcase from the third floor reception, where I’d carried it, down to the street. What was crazy is that the Muskovsky train station, where I needed to be, was all of two blocks away. Granted I would not have wanted to walk with my load, but it took nearly a half hour in St. Petersburg traffic. And still more strange was the only song I have heard here and understood was on the radio in the car while we were stuck in traffic. It was Erasure’s “Always”, which is a flashback from another trip many, many years ago. I found myself getting a bit misty leaving St. Petersburg. I think what sealed it for me was when the driver said “You go to Moscow?” I said “Yes, but I love it here, I don’t want to leave.” He gave me a big grizzly bear like response “Ahhhhh, Moscow just like big little village.” I’m not sure if that’s a resounding endorsement or not, but he laughed and smiled when he said it.

Then, in another flash of great service, the driver parked in a lot across the street, and schlepped my luggage across a street and a plaza, into the station and all the way to the door of the car of my train. I felt bad because he was an older guy and he kept stopping every so often to catch his breath and wipe his brow. Finally I sent him on his way because I didn’t want his death on my hands. I tipped him handsomely because I was also terribly relieved I didn’t have to manage both of my bags on my own.

So now I’m on the Sapsan train, the faster than Acela version of high speed rail in Russian. This trip used to take over 8 hours. For me on the Sapsan, it should take around 4. We were a bit late in leaving and I think there are two stops on the way. This thing reaches speeds of 260 kph, which is about 170 mph.

I am clearly the only American around me. I’m fine with that but I really did expect more tourists.

My plan for Moscow tonight (I should get there around 5:15 pm) is to drop the luggage and head out to Red Square. It should be light until around 8:00 so I’ll get that wow experience (I hope) and some photos. Then I’ll head to the Arbat neighborhood, get some Hard Rock Café paraphernalia and dinner. I'll check out the internet connection when I get back tonight.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Russia Day Five

Subtitled: Any friend of sour cream is a friend of mine, all palaced out and boosting the economy

Last night after I wrote I went out to take more night photos. I still wasn’t terribly hungry but on the way back I stopped at Teremok (Russian take-away food) and had a bliny with cream cheese and pineapple. Oh it hit the spot. And with a Diet Pepsi, it was about $2.80! Seriously that’s way better than a McDonald’s dollar deal! But I have noticed this country is very fond of both sour cream and cream cheese. Borsch? Mix in a few heaping tablespoons of sour cream and stir it in till it is smooth and creamy. Cream cheese in any and all dessert blinis and tarts and pies appears to be the rule. I'm good with that, I’m on the vacation diet so this is all permissible, of course.

Today we were up and out by 9:15 to take the hydrofoil across the Gulf of Finland to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer village. Katya and Sergei picked me up and this would be the last day of our threesome. Katya brought me red caviar and Russian chocolate as a gift to enjoy later on, which I thought was really sweet.

The hydrofoil trip took about 30 minutes and was pretty smooth. It started out warm and sunny in St. Petersburg but we ran into some heavy clouds and cooler temps when we arrived on the dock in Peterhof. We were just in time for the daily “turning on of the fountains” which, literally starts from a trickle, and as the music to the anthem for Leningrad picks up steam, the water bursts forth from all the gilded fountains all around the park (hundreds of them, it seems!) I caught the whole thing on FlipVideo, which I’ll post when I get home.

Katya gave me a tour of the interior of the palace, again in our surgeon’s booties to protect the floors, which given how mucky it was outside, is probably a good idea. This was another palace that was pretty seriously damaged in the war and also extensively restored. The photos of it really tell the story. Restoration is actually still ongoing, and Katya said if I were to return in 10, 15, 20 years I may see more rooms still that have been restored.

Peterhof was gorgeous inside, but I was fully won over by Catherine’s Palace yesterday and to be honest, was a bit overloaded on palaces. The only thing I can equate it to is too much candy corn. As good as it is, there’s a limit.

We walked around half of the grounds (it’s something like 100 hectares, and we only covered one side) and walked down to “Mon Plaisir” which was this little “cottage” with glass walls that Peter had right on the edge of the harbor where he could look back to St. Petersburg and across to land that used to be Finland before Lenin took it back. The location was just perfect and the crisply manicured gardens around it were beautiful. This was one of the sunnier parts of the day so it was really enjoyable.

While I give Catherine’s Palace the edge on the building itself and the interior, you can’t beat the fountains and really well landscaped gardens at Peterhof. They just have to be seen.

We spent just about an hour talking and walking through the gardens. It was more like hanging with a friend. She’d tell me about books she’d read and was particularly knowledgeable about Catherine the Great’s diaries, which sound really amusing. But we also shared stories about friends and family, relationships, work, school. Again, I came away with a feeling that someone was just like me here. I’m really starting to believe that fate had our lives intersect, because meeting her really added to an already incredible experience.

One most excellent thing that I haven’t mentioned about having a private guide is that she cuts to the front of just about every line. Everywhere we’ve been, there have been lines and she just goes to the front, flashes her guide pass, and in we go. That, my friends, is exceptional service, I have to say.

We ate lunch in the palace café. I had a ham and cheese pastry and a cup of coffee. We phoned Sergei to pick us up and headed back to St. P.

Our last stop was at the Church on Spilled Blood, which I’d already seen from the outside but waited to see the interior with a guide. Katya had told me that the church was never actually used as a church. Between religion being discouraged for so long and the church being used as vegetable storage during the siege, I didn’t have very high expectations for the interior. Was I ever wrong. The interior is exceptional. I cannot come up with enough superlatives to really describe it. Imagine every inch, from floor to ceiling and back again, covered with colorful mosaics that look like frescoes. I was just completely blown away. Somehow this building was saved in the siege and not destroyed. It took some damage but nothing that wasn’t quickly fixed (comparatively speaking). That is so fortunate though, because I doubt they would have made repairing this such a high priority because of how much work that might have been. I just could not believe my eyes. It really was exquisite.

Officially that was the end of my tour services, but I had mentioned to Katya that I was looking for something special for my Dad and had had some trouble finding good quality and cost. She had just the fix for that, and we made Sergei drive through rush hour traffic to Gostiny Dvor, which is a mall downtown. We also made him circle the building until we found, discussed and thoroughly vetted the decision to buy said object (Dad’s reading now so I can’t say what it is!) Sergei’s a champ though and he took it in stride.

So the three of us said our farewells. We exchanged emails (not Hott Sergei, unfortunately) and hugs. I gave Katya an amber pendant (as we'd joked about the number of them I'd already bought this week) and a card and let her know she is always welcome with me in Manchester. I only hope someday she is able to take me up on that.

I did head back out for still more shopping. You may notice the Russian economy has experienced an upswing this week. The results of it are all in my previously half-empty suitcase. Seriously, I didn’t feel as though I have bought much but now that it’s all jammed in there, I’m thinking I’ll be curbing this habit in Moscow. Yikes.

I ate at Bliny Domik on Kolokonaya Ulitsa, quite near my hotel. I had borsch (with sour cream of course!) and the main course was meat dumplings with baked potatoes in a wrought iron skillet topped with sliced tomatoes. If you like hearty hot meals that fill you up (think: great winter supper!) then this is for you. It was great. I think all told it was 24 dollars! I also stopped at a coffee shop for a pastry before I headed back here to pack.

No idea what I’ll do for a couple hours in the morning before it’s time to head to the train. Maybe the Dostoyevsky Museum…not sure, certainly not more shopping! I’ve just finished Katya’s chocolate….sigh! This vacation thing is very cool.

On to Moscow tomorrow. I'm not sure what the internet connection is like in the next hotel. If it is seriously expensive, I'll try to just blog and upload photos but not respond to emails till I get home.

Do svidanya!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Russia Day Four

Subtitled: Living the palace life and any day on vacation is better than work, even if it rains

Thankfully today all systems were go with the alarm clock. I woke with a nice comfortable 90 minute cushion to leisurely wake up, get dressed, eat (same breakfast) and even run across the street to get money out of the ATM. Today was meant to be Day One of Palace Day, with Catherine’s Palace and Pavlovsk on the agenda. Katya and Sergei were here promptly at 9:00 and off we went on an hour ride to make the 18 km trip to the town Pushkin.

Getting out of Saint Petersburg is nearly a nightmare. Allow me to digress for a moment and bring you up to speed. I thought Boston drivers and traffic were bad, but this really takes the cake (and I’m told is nothing compared to what I’ll see in Moscow). They make sharp cuts in lanes at high speed. Higher speeds and sharper cuts than I’d feel comfortable with on say, Boylston Street or Storrow Driver. But then they get out on the motorway (like our 128) and it’s like a Sunday drive. Weird. The other thing is that they will not plow you down if you are a pedestrian in a crosswalk with the light in your favor. However, they will creep up to every available inch of pavement before the painted lines before they decide to screech to a halt. That’s exciting. Or not….

Anyway, Catherine’s Palace was one of the summer residences of the tsars, this one, obviously belonging to Catherine II. It was done in the very ostentatious baroque style (don’t be impressed that I know that, I just learned it today) and essentially what that means is really over-the-top over done ostentatious architecture. But somehow here, it just works. First, I absolutely adore the blue the exterior is painted in. I see it a lot, and Katya said that the “marine colors”of blue, seafoam green and yellow were very popular on the palaces. The white trim and gold accents are stellar and almost blinding in the sun. Inside, the palace is similarly over-decorated in the Baroque style, but I guess when I think of “tsar’s summer home” I think big and gorgeous and “show me your wealth”. This does it.

“The” draw of Catherine’s Palace though, is the Amber Room. A German emperor had given Peter the Great panels of amber to line the walls of one room, and not just line them but create patterns around niches, frames, borders, etc. Floor to ceiling amber. This was, as you might imagine, quite an expensive gift (which Peter reciprocated by giving 50 healthy Russian soldiers in return). Well, that was all well and good until the Germans invaded Russia in WWII and made these palaces their barracks. What wasn’t already secreted away to Siberia either got ransacked, damaged or taken by the Germans. You guessed it, the Amber Room panels went missing. And in a drama similar to the Gardner Museum Heist, they remain to be found. Or not, according to Katya. This was the first point we seemed not to see eye to eye on. In my obsessive pre-trip reading, I had read lots of (western) research on what “really” happened to the panels. Most of it points to a Russian “ooops” as in “we dropped them but don’t want to tell Lenin we destroyed them” (for obvious reasons, namely torture, execution or Siberia, seriously). But Katya insists that the Germans dropped them in a lake or sea trying to take them from the country. She is fairly certain of this and looked at me like I was on drugs when I asked if she thought they’d ever find them. Anyway, the German government paid for a complete restoration of the Amber Room, whether out of responsibility since they gifted the originals or because they took/stole/broke/drowned them somewhere. The room reopened in 2005 and let me tell you, it is completely unlike anything I’d ever seen. It helps that I love the color orange, but this was just amazing. All of the detail and carvings and the walls are actually mosaic and not full slabs of amber. It really was a special experience to see it, mystery notwithstanding.

I should mention for the museum-going folks reading this that both palaces today required that we check coats and wear surgeons booties over our shoes, so as to protect the newly restored floors and not rub up against anything with a wet or dirty coat. Which leads me to restoration….I had no idea that all of these palaces were either looted and ransacked or burned or bombed out during WWII. There are photos around both palaces showing the devastation. To think that they’ve been restored mostly to their former glory so (relatively) quickly is beyond impressive. I asked Katya if that created a lot of jobs once the war was over and she implied that it wasn’t necessarily a job you signed up for, it was a job you were assigned and you just did it, even if for very little pay. So I’m guessing it was more something you did because you were told to.

Ok, for really the true highlight of the day: lunch. And not just because I like to eat, this was just a blast. We stopped at Podvorie, which is a 5-star restaurant between Pushkin and Pavlovsk. This ideally located restaurant, believe it or not, is like an authentic Russian theme restaurant. If I hadn’t read that it is legitimately rated, I seriously would not have gone in myself (you know me and themes…). It is a replica wooden cottage that looks better suited to the Russian wilds. Upon entering, a huge furry bear greets you with shots of vodka (at this point I say “Ok, I’m in!”) and there are singers and musicians strolling around stirring up joviality with just about every Russian song that foreigners might be able to hum and clap to. The wooden benches and chairs are decorated in typical rural Russian rustic-ness and it gives off a warm homey feeling. But the food, the food. It was like the endless supper!

First came the wine, a bottle each of their red and white, both of which were quite good. And water and vodka, just for good measure. The appetizers were pickled tomatoes, onions and pickles, slices of spiced pork, tomato halves with some sort of fish salad on them and the piece de resistance: cold beef stroganoff, which honestly I would have eaten for a month of Sundays. It was phenomenal, you know the kind of dish you’d keep sneaking back to the fridge for another bite. More wine, more vodka. Here comes julienne mushroom cream soup, which for a mushroom-phobe was scary but I actually liked it. I had my first ever borsch (No “t” on borsch here, please!) which was a slightly spicy, heavily onioned vegetable soup, pretty tasty. Then the main course was grape leaves stuffed with seasoned meat, which I really liked. Dessert was a blini with ice cream and cappuccino and more vodka. Honestly I was headed for a nap seriously at that point! Too much food (but damned if I was going to leave any of it there).

Then on to Pavlovsk. Surprisingly I have excellent recall of that stop. Pavlovsk was Alexander I’s summer home. It was designed by a Scottish architect (Catherine’s Palace was by an Italian) and it is in the classical style, so much more subdued and cozy. I could picture living here. There were no grand rooms, no ostentatious gold leaf, but just a warm, cozy feel. After we saw the interior, we walked around the gardens which for the most part were not landscaped and manicured like at Catherine’s Palace, but more wild. Then of course it started to pour. Katya apologized profusely, but laughed when I said “any rainy day on vacation is better than any day at work.” How true it is. The rain only lasted minutes and we finished our walk and headed home. Five hours later, I’m still not hungry!

Tomorrow is my last full day in St. Petersburg and I realized today that I feel like I’m losing a new friend. I have been tipping Katya at the end of the day as my tour consultant suggested and Katya said she feels bad taking money from me because we have become so close. As we share more stories about our different lives and upbringings, there are so many things we feel similarly about, so many situations we have both been in and had the same reaction. For someone like me who wanted to learn more about life in Russia and among the Russians, this has so fit the bill. But as an added bonus, I have laughed more with her than I thought I would and I’ve been so blessed to have had this experience with her. She’s gone above and beyond to find out what interests me and made sure I’ve seen it, but beyond that she’s really made me feel like a friend. I only wish I could take her to Moscow.

For the record, those of you who are anxious to see photos, be careful what you wish for. As of tonight, I have 399 shots. The quickie album I'm posting from the shaky wireless connection is still here

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Russia Day Three

Subtitled: The Big Day at the Hermitage that Almost Wasn’t

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock or ignoring me altogether, you’re fully aware that the BIG day on this trip was today, the day I spent from open to close at the Hermitage Museum, the mother ship of all museums. (Technically it is second to the Louvre, but it has a few collections I’m interested in that even the Louvre can’t beat).

Katya (I confirmed her name is Katerina and now we’re on short-name terms, so it is Katya) was meant to pick me up at 10:00 a.m. We’d walk to the Hermitage in time to get there for the open at 10:30. Well riddle me this, I woke at 4:00, could not get back to sleep for the life of me. Kept checking the clock, 4:30, 5:00, 5:30. I expected the alarm to go off at 8:30, giving me a bit of a lie in this morning. Well, I woke and noticed it was abnormally bright in the room, rolled over and looked and it’s 9:26. Good glory and a whole bunch of expletives later (can’t blame the cat for not waking me or for not setting the alarm, he’s 4000+ miles away!), I took the world’s fastest shower, dried my hair and dressed all in about 17 minutes. I still had time for a bowl of cereal and a yogurt and ate a Poptart while waiting for Katya, who herself slept late and got here a little after 10:00. It would figure though, the one day I’d most been looking forward to and I was dumb enough not to set the alarm for it. I have already checked and double-checked while I type this and note that it is set for 7:30 tomorrow.

The Hermitage….good god, what is there to say. It far, far, far exceeded my expectations. I saw more than I thought I would, I liked more than I thought I would, the museum was better organized, had signs in English both to point visitors to the toilets and to explain each work of art. Katya gave a wonderful tour, but so many times I wanted to slow down or deviate. I started keeping a list of things I wanted to go back to and see again or see in slow motion. She covered just about everything, soup to nuts.

I don’t even know where to begin. The Titians were gorgeous, especially his Danae and Christ Carrying the Cross. There were two younger Raphaels, one Katya said was done on wood and transferred to canvas later. There were two Leonardos too, I mean damn, how many times do you get to see two at once? Then the Michelangelo, oh good lord, hurt me now, just sublime with the back and leg muscles just perfect. And just when you start to get the feeling that life can’t get any better than four Velazquez, three El Grecos and a exquisite Goya (and I don’t even like Goya!) you round the corner into “the Rembrandt room"...

And really, I should have had Katya warn me. I’d been anxious to see Rembrandt’s Danae ever since I saw the Sundance special Hermitageniks, one episode of which covered the tragic terrorism caused by a psycho who threw acid as this painting to get attention. Thanks to quick thinking conservators and the heavy hand of Rembrandt himself (he painted in such thick layers that his paintings are excessively heavy), they were able to repair most of the damage. This painting is just absolutely breathtaking, and it was sitting there the minute we rounded the corner into the room. I didn’t cry even though I thought I would but it was really just a moment of joy to see it. But to see 23 others? I was truly blessed. I think the others that really made an impression me were Flora and the Young Woman with Earrings. Rembrandt painted these using his wife and later lover as his models, and the care and warmth that he painted in them is palpable. His Holy Family, as simple and straightforward as it is (set in a traditional Dutch home-setting rather than a manger) is also something I will never forget. It was just amazing.

So at that point I felt like if it ended here, I’d be fine and happy. Then I stumbled on to a room of Canova sculptures and nearly lost my mind. There was The Kiss of Cupid and Psyche like in the Louvre but also Three Graces and an absolutely stellar Mary Magdalene. Seriously, with about 7 others, this was just heaven. I could not believe my luck.

Where this museum does fall a bit short is the Impressionist work. I felt the six Monets and four Van Goghs that are there were not necessarily the best. None of the Monets had his classical blurred view, they were much earlier before he got deep into waterlillies and painting things at different times of day. There were two Degas that I could fine, both ballet pastels. One was just gorgeous in orange, yellow and pinks. There was a fairly good assortment of Renoirs, the best of which was the Portrait of Jean Samary, and I told Katya the story of how Renoir was in love with her and tolerated her lack of commitment to the painting of the Boating Party.

Sharing a room with the Van Goghs were four Rodins. I’m certain at this point that I’d seen them all before: Age of Bronze, Eternal Spring, Poet and Muse (maybe not this one) and Cupid and Psyche. But how nice to see them with all the rest of this bounty!

There is more than just painting and sculpture to the museum. Katya took me through the State Rooms, stopping in the Malachite Room and the Throne Room, where later on I saw a bride and groom dancing for their wedding photos.

Also there was an exhibition of art looted by the Nazis. Well, they called it “Art from Private Collections” but Katya says now that the art is out, the Hermitage doesn’t want to give it back. Nice. But in this exhibit there were a fair number of Renoirs, Monets and VVGs there, but again, nothing that is terribly earth shattering. I think the best of the Impressionists is definitely either in Paris in the case of Monet and Renoir or Holland for Vincent.

So for food today…the speed demon breakfast for the alarm clock impaired. Lunch was at the museum and was just a ham and cheese on a roll with a cream puff tart with little berries on it. The cream was out of this world! I also had a strawberry flan somewhere around 4:30 to keep me going. This museum thing is hard work!

After dropping my shopping off back at the hotel, I went back out for dinner to a place called Fasol, down behind Kazan Cathedral. There I had potato pancakes with sour cream (basically they were like hash browns only not so greasy), beef stroganoff (the best so far, slightly spicy) and for dessert blini filled with cheese and topped with warm strawberries. I also had a sangria made with Russian red wine, which was good. All in, this cost 1080 rubles, with tip it would be 1200 so about $40. Very very reasonable, imho.

I stood around outside waiting for it get dark enough for the Church of Savior on Spilled Blood to be illuminated. Was it ever worth the wait. Just gorgeous!!!

Ok, really have to get to sleep now so I don’t oversleep yet again!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blogging Day Two

Subtitled: Before Peter there were only icons, the root of understanding, that’s why I did this, understanding the icons, and what would you give Mama?

Truly, there is no sleep as good as the first sleep of jetlag. I laid down last night right when I logged off here and I remember nothing else until 5:00 a.m. when the bathroom called. I didn’t think I’d get back to sleep again, but I did, and slept right to the alarm at 7:30. When I woke up, I felt great, even though it was 11:30 p.m. to my body. Odd.

I still live in fear of the water here. Everyone I talked to and everything I read warned me that under no conditions should I drink the tap water, not even to brush teeth or in the shower to rinse whatever may be near my mouth. So taking a shower in the world’s smallest shower, holding my breath and not opening my mouth, is a challenge to say the least.

Breakfast this morning was included in my room rate. There was a fine assortment of food: corn flakes, porridge, Vienna sausages, meat and cheese, bread and yogurt. I had cereal, bread, yogurt and two Vienna sausages, just to say I tried them. Also two glasses of OJ, which tasted spectacular for some reason.

I met my guide in the lobby at 10. I believe her name is Katerina. I can’t for the life of me remember for sure. She is probably in her early 30s and like me (who as we know bid adieu to 30s recently), a single chick. This became more apparent later on. We went outside where HELL-O! Sergei the hottt driver from yesterday is back. See, I have no problem remembering the hottt driver’s name! Anyway, off we went on our city tour. I’m not sure what they expected me to do yesterday on my own, but they were surprised that I’d already covered as much ground as I did. So we blew by a lot of the sites I’d seen yesterday.

Our first big stop was at Peter and Paul fortress, which is like Tower of London, only smaller and has less to it. There’re some quarters for the staff and the cathedral and the national mint. The fortress is out on an island, but it was never actually used as a fortress. It was, however, a political prison. The cathedral is where the whole Romanov family is buried as well as all the tsars. It was sort of poignant to see the Romanovs there after having read the book about their last year and being so affected by it.

Next stop was to St. Isaac's Cathedral, the fourth largest in the world after Rome, London and Florence. This really was pretty and reminded me a lot of St. Paul’s in London. The iconostasis is all mosaics with malachite and lapis columns, just gorgeous. Apparently after the war, they removed a Foucaults pendulum which hung from the center of the dome and replaced it with a stained glass dove. Both here and in the cathedral in the fortress, there was a pulpit, which is not used in Russian orthodox churches because everyone, including the priest, worships at the same level. The reason why the pulpit was there in either place was because the architects were French or Italian.

When they were done showing me all of central St. P, I went on my own to Kazan Cathedral and the State Museum. The museum is all Russian art, and I have realized that before Peter the Great, it was all icons. Then when he came to power, he sent a bunch of artists to Italy and Holland, and they came back painting like artists we know elsewhere. There was one painting I’d seen around town on various signs and swore it was a Sargent. But instead it was an artist named Serov. I didn’t instantly recognize anything, which, coupled with the intense heat of this museum, made it hard to tolerate as the last visit on a jam-packed day.

The Kazan Cathedral experience was emotionally intense and I wasn't quite prepared for it. I have visited a Museum of Russian Icons at home, but even after that, I still couldn't quite grasp the whole icon thing. But this cathedral has Our Lady of Kazan up on the altar. When I walked in, the line in front of the icon was over 50 people long, and the faithful wait in line patiently, then climb the steps up, cross themselves three times, kiss the icon, say their prayers and just meditate. When they walked away it was a mixture of just complete sadness or weariness or relief. It was just something to see, that whatever they seemed to need from that icon, they were just so earnest in their attempts to get it. I'd never seen anything like that at home.

Oh, and ok, so we’re walking around both the cathedral at the fortress and St. Isaac’s and even on my own in the museum, and in each case, we’re just getting trampled by these tour groups. 25-30 people, all either getting yelled at by a guide at the top of her lungs, or roaming like drones following a colored umbrella from point A to point B as they listen to the guide over headphones from a point that perhaps they haven’t even made it to yet. They aren’t interacting, either with each other or with the guide. It was right then, or perhaps when I saw them all piling back on the bus to move to the next sight en masse, that I realized I made the right decision taking this trip the way I am. I get to talk to my guide, ask questions, take detours, take pee breaks...all when I need to, not the when the group or the guide of the group decides it is time. For me, that is worth the price of admission right there. Well, that and hottt Sergei.

So for food today, I had a great cheese pie (like cheesecake in pastry) for lunch at a small coffee bar that my guide found. Dinner tonight was a Georgian meal at Kavkaz Bar (Ul. Karavannaya 18). I had cheese bread (like pita fried with goat cheese in the middle), meat dumplings and tomato/onion salad with olive oil and some spicy red pepper.

My guide is really good about answering questions that I might not want to ask older people. So I dug into what it was like to be here when Communism fell, how things have changed, how she feels now about it. She told me that her mother used to wait in any line coming out of a shop because even if she didn’t know why people were waiting, it had to be good if there was a line. Her grandmother, on the other hand, would only wait if she knew what she was waiting for and knew that she wanted whatever it is.

Believe it or not she said there were some good things about it (everyone had free medical care and it was good, better than they have now, and it was incredibly safe and drug and crime free then too). But the one thing that struck me is that she said "we knew we lived on this planet, but we were not allowed beyond our borders. But then we never even thought about leaving or that it would ever be possible." She said since they've been allowed out, they go as much as they can. Her parents, who I assume are about my parents' age, go somewhere different every time because they are afraid that someday they'll not be let out again. We also talked a lot about figure skating (she was impressed that I can name every Russian back to Rodnina and Zaitsev in 1980!). We watched a wedding at a church we were in and commented on how the groom looked so much older and happier than the bride. She says that's not common and as it was such a small party, it was probably a shotgun wedding, which would explain why the mother looked pissed.

I did a bit of shopping today. The guide took me to an off the beaten path place where I found some matroyshka and a music box I wanted. And I finally found amber that I liked, and got a pendant for each of Abby, Mom and me.

I stopped in a liquor shop and had a mixed conversation in English and Russian with the old ladies about what the best vodka is. They pointed out several, one of which I saw in duty free the other day. I asked "what is your favorite?" The lady says "I drink it all, anything." Well, I guess I set myself up for that response. So I said "My mama said bring her the best vodka, what do you bring your mama?" and she went right to the top of the shelf. Cross your fingers it makes it home in my luggage. I bought it here because it was cheaper than duty free in Germany.

That's it for now. Early to bed tonight and a bit of a lie in tomorrow. We leave here at 10 a.m. for the Hermitage. I’m going to the mothership of art. Woooo hoooo!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blogging Day One

Wow...that's just about all I can say but it really doesn't seem to be enough.

I'll spare you the gory details of the 13 hours it took to get here. But it was all good: seemingly fast flights, fast connection, good breakfast in Frankfurt (hey, a girl's got her priorities!) and then I breezed through immigration here and then my bag was second off the carousel! Jackpot!

Sergei (hereafter known as the hottt driver assigned to me by my So Far Really Awesome Travel Consultant) took me to my hotel, which is right off the upper part of Nevsky Prospekt (the Champs Elysees of St. Petersburg, I guess you could say). I say "upper part" because it does take about 20 minutes to walk to the center where the main sites are, but hey, we're down with exercise, right?

So fast forward through viewing a Russian block-era hotel room, showering in the world's smallest shower stall, but rejoicing at towel warmers (those who have read the Rome report know how I feel about that!) and off I went down Nevsky Prospekt with nothing but Church on the Spilled Blood on my mind and in my head. But wait...is that a bliny shop summoning me? Oh, this Russian version of a crepe, the ham and swiss was calling to me. Laugh if you will, but I also ordered in Russian and asked a woman "is that seat taken?" in Russian, and she let me sit with her. So there. The podcasts did pay off! And it was educational to stop for a bliny. Really!

Ok, now we're off to Church on the Spilled Blood. And walk and walk down crowded Nevsky, just like in Paris, window shoppers out for the day. Lo and behold look left and there's Kazan Cathedral (which is mildly interesting in and of itself) but I knew from studying my map that if I look right I'd see the church I'd only dreamed of and there it was, sitting right on the edge of the canal. Holy crap. Really, that's what I said. And I walked the canal to it, around it and back to the front, really controlling myself because it's on a tour later this week, as much as I wanted to go in now. But the exterior, nothing in the world can prepare you for this. Part of me says "ridiculous hodge podge" but the other part says "gorgeous, just beautiful". And then back down Nevsky toward the Winter Palace.

I'd double checked my map and noted that Nevsky arcs right and lets me right out into the middle of....and another gasp. Wow. There right as I rounded the corner was the Winter Palace in all of its turquoise splendor. The square is massive, the detail on the palace is insane and the color is so bright, I already know my camera hasn't been able to do it justice. And this is another place covered later this week, so for now I just have to be happy having seen it.

Nearby is St. Issac's Cathedral and not so coincidentally, a restaurant I wanted to try, so I head off in that direction. St. Issac's is impressive and yes, it IS sort of reminiscent of St. Paul's in Rome, believe it or not.

Dinner tonight was at Teplo. I didn't have a reservation, but I went early and figured they could squeeze me in before the later diners come in, which they did. I had an unbelievable pumpkin soup, beef stroganoff and garlic baked potatoes. Yee ha! Of course with all the meals on planes and near the airports today (who can say no to German Fruhstuk??), I think that was my 6th meal since I left home, but we'll get back on track tomorrow. Maybe.

So that's it for today. I'm now 30 hours with no sleep and can't understand how I'm still going. Up early for 9:00 tour...

Pictures from this week

Friday, September 10, 2010

T-1 day....

Think about this: tomorrow at this time I should be at Logan, getting ready to hop the flight to Frankfurt en route to St. Petersburg. Yee ha!

It's been a fairly slow week with a bit of excitement at work but I'm here now with an hour left and I think I've left everything in fairly respectable order.

Don't read this if you don't like minutae, but this is what I've learned through various bouts of web surfing during the last few days:

-- Lufthansa's Moscow to Munich flight usually arrives early, very early in fact.

-- However, should you arrive late and are in danger of missing your flight, Munich Airport officials will pick you and your luggage up at the plane and drive you to your connecting flight (ok, so you can already see that I've been re-thinking the 90 minute Munich connectiong coming home, right?)

-- The recommended connection time from Moscow to Munich is 30 minutes. I have 90. I think I'm good.

-- Looks like partly cloudy and mid 60s Sunday and Monday in St. Petersburg. Maybe rain thereafter, but that will be museum and palace time anyway.

-- There are a decent amount of interesting looking restaurants near my hotel in St. Petersburg, not so much in Moscow.

-- The sun doesn't set in St. P this time of year until 8:35! Compare that to Boston's 7:05! In Moscow it's 8:00...that city is that much further south to make a difference.

I packed last night, as in actually putting piles of things into appropriate bags. I am mildly disconcerted that the larger bag is half empty (in this case isn't it optimistic to see a half empty bag?). I wonder if I'm missing something significant or have just become extremely efficient packing over the years. Or if it's just that I'm using my Mom's luggage since mine met an untimely zipper death.

Well damn, this blog post only managed to kill 6 minutes of my last work day. Off to do one more round of laundry and mani/pedi.

I'll blog from the other side, WiFi connection permitting!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Organized chaos

Well, here I am three days out. Can you even believe it? I can't yet. I thought for sure the packing would do it, and it did for that day. But now it just seems unreal. It seems unreal that on Sunday instead of doing a long ride outside and going to the beach, I'll be walking Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg and seeing Church on the Spilled Blood and the Winter Palace instead. Wow. Just wow.

People laugh at my practice packing. Well, let me tell you, it paid off this time. I realized when I got my luggage out that the zipper on my big piece split. Better to find that out last weekend than the day I leave. So there.

Right now, the house is organized chaos. "Chaos" in that it's sort of just piles of "stuff" waiting to be packed. The soon-to-be contents of my carry-on are on my office floor. My clothes are neatly stacked on a chair in the bedroom. My cosmetic bag is mostly packed except for what I'll need until the day I leave. Random stuff like maps, snacks (Poptarts, Candy Corn and Fig Newtons!) and umbrella are in the middle of my bedroom.

Everything else is done. Most of my work commitments are taken care of or as taken care of as they'll get. Tonight is my last night at the gym. Thursday night I'll pack what won't wrinkle. Friday night is one last laundry and mani/pedi.

I guess now it's all over but the going!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Week Out

Today my friend Shannon wrote "a week from now you'll be in Russia." Good glory, she's right. A few times today I've found myself adding 8 hours to whatever time it is to put myself into Russian time and then wondering what I'll be doing next week at this time. Wow.

So far I'm doing well. It has finally hit me, I think, as I pulled out luggage, did laundry and started packing things, a nervous excitement really set in. I am finding myself a bit nervous about getting around and knowing the language (or not, as the case may be). This morning I awoke wondering how I'd be able to order lunch when I get there. I'm alone on Day One, so those two meals next Sunday are up to me. I can just imagine walking in somewhere and seeing a menu full of Cyrillic. And being really hungry....you follow me.

But I'll be fine. I know I will.

Yesterday I put a significant dent in my packing yesterday and also cleaned the house in anticipation of my mother doing the cat sitting while I'm away. I feel ready and I'm certainly excited. I do find myself getting a bit overwhelmed at the "getting there" part, because 13 hours seems excessively long to me and when you just want to get there, it is painful. But, I suppose, not nearly as painful as the 16 hours it will take to get home!

So as I see and say bye to people for the last time before I go, I cannot believe it's almost here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September is here

September 1st.

It’s here. As of today I can say “this month I’m going to Russia.” Hell, at this point I can say “next week I’m going to Russia.” Wow.

I cannot believe that 8 months have passed since I made that first phone call to the Russian travel specialists. I cannot believe that I have patiently, or not so patiently, bided my time all year and now it’s just about here.

Even though it’s gestated almost as long as a human child does, this trip still seems like a dream. Even as I walk through my planning checklist and make preparations to go, like I do for any trip, it still does not seem real. I’ve wanted to take this trip for so long, I am still in complete disbelief that it’s actually about to happen.

When will it hit me? When will I realize that it’s not a dream, that I’m actually going? Or will I need to get there to realize it? When does concept become reality? Dream become actuality?

There’s so much I already know I want to see and experience and yet I wonder how much experience there will be that I don’t already know. I love the wondering and the imagining and the hoping. Now all that’s left is for it to happen.