Hello Blog, Remember Me?

Since we last “spoke”, I had returned from the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Now I have returned from a European Rhine and Mosel River Cruise, a G Adventures tour in Morocco, visits to Lisbon, Porto, and Barcelona, and sightseeing in Bordeaux, all with my maman.

There are thousands of photos and (slightly) less credit card receipts! Souvenirs are waiting to be placed in the right spot and typical daily life will take over in a day or two. It’s probably a very good thing the weather forecast includes rainy days after glorious sunshine and summer temps have beckoned us outside.

I intend to spend the time before my next journey establishing long-term priorities and boundaries with a goal of being in my moments, and in yours when you’d like to share with me on a personal basis. I’m an email dinosaur because I don’t like typing on a smartphone…I’m a video call embracer (skype/messenger) because it’s fun to share expression and emotion in words and actions…I’m a writer because I love to read…and I’m a WhatsApp and Instagram user when only a photo will do. I’m going to “go shady” on Facebook, Words With Friends, and other social apps. (However, I will keep my user interfaces, so if there’s something you’d like me to see, please let me know and I will look for it.) I won’t be liking, loving, commenting, or sharing on FB for about a month as an experiment and I’m “unfriending” many in hopes that our paths will cross in different meaningful (and definitely old-fashioned!) ways.

For my blog, I’ll continue to write about my life…not as a travel journal, but more as a diary. I hope to limit photos to one or two favorites and include more of who I am and who I’m becoming. I realize this may not be interesting to you at all and it’s ok to stop following my posts 🙂  But, if you do comment, I will always respond. Posts and responses may be fewer and shorter but I feel there is no longer a “need” to make sure I’m “ok” by checking to see if there’s a blogpost.

On my side, I’m going to concentrate on being more worldly, more European, more French, and more “enlightened”. I want to learn differing religious beliefs and cultural values and explore art in all its forms. I want to “do” the things and “be” the person that gives me pleasure and significance in my world. I want to be my favorite version of me while (hopefully) also being your favorite version of daughter, mom, sister, and friend.

Wish me luck and wish me well and I wish the same for you…مشيئة الله

 

 

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I Don’t Have A Solution

First supposition: People hate lots of things, including other people.

Hypothetically, as long as I don’t cause harm to someone I hate or incite violence toward that person, which are criminal acts, I am allowed to go around saying “I hate them” to anyone who will listen. I am even allowed to gather like-minded people to be able to say “We all hate them.” And our hate can be directed at an individual or a group. This is our right to freedom of speech, isn’t it? Hate speech is not the same as hate crime, is it? From playground bullies to political leaders and everything in between, this “us against them” dynamic happens over and over and over again.

Second supposition: People who disagree with a particular rhetoric have their own right to exercise their freedom of speech…again without causing harm or malice.

Generally, extremist views are held by a minority of people. At any vote, debate, rally, or confrontation, usually a simple headcount indicates what most people believe. That is a powerful statement. However, that does not make anyone right and it does not make anyone wrong, unless or until a crime is committed.

Third supposition: Criminal acts are perpetrated by individuals…we arrest, try, and sentence individuals.

Yes, each individual may be following the dogma of a group, but it is still an individual choice to be a criminal. The group and it’s mantras may be objectionable (trying to come up with a word that doesn’t scream emotion), but if they are not illegal and commit no crimes, they have the right to exist, do they not?

By condemning people who “hate”, I believe we pressure their behaviors to become even more radical, more angry, sometimes underground, and definitely more dangerous. Is it possible that a dialogue could open instead? Who or what do you hate and why? Can we give you information that changes your mind? Can we give you experiences that change your mind? Can we begin to deradicalize the people who hate but really have no justifiable idea why…they’re just following the crowd?

A statue of Robert E. Lee was set to be pulled down. People have different beliefs about whether or not that “is right”. Can’t we take a vote, follow the results, and leave it at that?

 

 

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Up and Down Nevsky Prospekt

The main avenue through the historic heart of SPb is Nevsky Prospekt. Intersected by canals, canvassed by buses, and undergrounded by the metro, NP is at times eight lanes of traffic (maybe ten?) and the road has ridges (like Ruffles), presumably to funnel water and prevent winter ice. At one end, abutting the Neva River, is Palace Square and the Winter Palace. At the other is the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, victims and ultimately victors of the 900 day Nazi blockade. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on NP, take a stroll down one of the many side streets for food, art, entertainment, and shopping. It’s all pedestrian friendly, lively with outdoor bands and plein aire artists, stuffed with souvenir shops and stalls, and in the summer, light until almost 11 pm.

(u)   x(o)x

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Time Warp

In chronological fashion, this post would be about the return trip to Tallinn, but I’m not through sharing SPb yet 🙂

I haven’t even mentioned the cathedrals and churches. The Russian Orthodox buildings (many and mostly) are typically onion-domed on the outside and intricately gilded on the inside. Several are filled with sparkling mosaic art and few have stained glass windows. Most have pipe organs and most don’t have pews or chairs. (Don’t even think about rest for the weary!) Worshipers, particularly women, are covered from head to shoulders to knees and there’s usually an icon or relic that’s adorned for prayer and kisses. Sightseers are asked to dress and act demurely, not take photos, and be silent – with only some success. (These photos are from the churches that are museums and you pay to enter.)

Cemeteries are in the woods and they are gorgeous. Plots with iron fences and crosses are planted with flowers and it all feels and looks inviting.

Married couples have wedding photos taken around town at all the “destinations”. I chuckled each time I watched them navigating buses, pedestrians, and pigeons to get the photo shoot. Seems the usual color for grooms is a blue blue suit or tux and the gowns were usually white but one was a gorgeous pale pink.

One day I visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. There was another VERY long line, mostly babushkaed women, leading out from a side gate that appeared to originate from a cemetery. Not knowing what was happening and just as equally knowing I wasn’t going to stand in that line, I attempted to find another way into just the monastery. American that I am (and in hindsight this might have been stupid), I walked through some crowd control barricades and patrolled gates with my guidebook in hand searching for the place in the picture. I was ignored as I walked past a monk filling vessels with holy water and a tent covering people eating ice cream. Finally, I reached another barricade where a very short line of people was admitted, like a timed entry thing. So, I stood there with the next group hoping to get in. Some of the line tenders asked my business and of course, I could only point to my picture and gesture to the monastery. They tried to speak with me in Russian (obviously to no avail) and then one google translated to “St. Nicholas relics” and might have asked me if I was Christian? I just continued nodding and pointing and they gave up and let me in. Well, I found out later that the relics of St. Nicholas, one of the most hallowed saints in Russia, were there for viewing from Moscow…for something like two weeks and this was one of the last days. People approached a center altar, one side from my line and the other from that enormous snaking babushkaed thing, taking baby steps to move forward. There were guards posted and everyone bent over to kiss the relics…what else could I do? At the time, I had no clue. And, I saw very little of the monastery.

(u)   x(o)x

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Last day in St. Petersburg

But not my last post about everything I saw and did there 🙂  Two more museums were on my agenda-the Russian Museum of Ethnography, and the Russian Vodka Museum. With expert planning, I explored the latter at the dinner hour and ate at their very fine restaurant. Then, on this very last evening, I was enchanted by the Russian ballet performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the famous Mariinsky Theatre. What a finale!

I am fascinated by ethno museums. In this instance, I LOVED the fabrics and intricate weavings, admired the clothing worn to keep warm, took too many photos of sleighs, and generally enjoyed the museum practically all to myself.  It was very well done with separate areas for different cultures: Ukrainians, Moravians, Siberians, etc. There was a section for Russian Jews also.

Who would NOT love the Vodka Museum?! A small space with a huge amount of paraphernalia and I didn’t know there were so many vodkas…basically one brand per family line! At the end, I had a tasting of three very different samples which prompted a full pour to go with dinner. Vodka etiquette: it must be cold, it must be chugged, and your glass must be refilled. And since I follow the rules…

And the ballet was everything I dreamed it would be.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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Hermitage Day 2

The Hermitage is a must see museum if you’re in St. Petersburg, even if it’s just for the imperial apartments. That’s mostly how my visit turned out because crowds detracted a lot from my painting gazing. Once again, I was surprised at the amount of glare allowed but not at all surprised by the management of the queue! Still, another four hours of wandering left an impression of wonderment at the size, breadth, and depth of the collection…for example, of the 14 L. daVinci’s known to exist, the Hermitage has two…and they are both famous madonnas.

On a different note, my hotel became a welcome and comfortable haven after long days of sight-seeing. My window opened onto the courtyard…more for a breeze than a view. A mini fridge held evening snacks so I could put on the provided robe and slippers and munch while planning the next day. The bathroom had a nightlight on a sensor (brilliant idea) and a heated floor (what a luxury!) Every morning, I sat on a small terrace to eat breakfast which was prepackaged based on my choice the day before. You could get egg custards, or a ham and cheese sandwich, or porridge and it always came with tomatoes, cucumber, and a mini-muffin. The terrace provided the day’s weather forecast as the clouds created a remarkable sky. And best of all, the staff were all young people, learning English, and probably earning money from a summer job. Always smiling, always helpful, always making sure you checked off the next day’s breakfast choice…they were delightful “company”.

(u)   x(o)x

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Foresight Can Be 20/20

I booked my ticket online for the Hermitage to span two days and include the day when it’s museums were open until 9:00 pm. Now, I can’t imagine seeing the Hermitage any other way. In total, I spent eight hours there…four in the modernized General Staff Building where an extensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings are located. The next day I spent four hours inside the Winter Palace, the classic Hermitage building and the main museum with treasures dating back to antiquity. My focus was on paintings, sculpture, and interiors, along with a peek at the temporary exhibitions. Once again, I was dismayed at the behaviors of Japanese tour groups-when they passed through a doorway en masse there was no room for anyone to move the other direction! It was like cinching your waist with a belt and having everything balloon on either side. I was also surprised that the lighting for this premier collection of artwork is not very well managed- most areas had glare that simple gauzy window shades would have fixed. Nonetheless, the art and the Palace are practically indescribable.

(u)   x(o)x

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Peterhof

Before Catherine’s Palace there was Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer Palace also located outside the city. I chose the quick and easy hydrofoil trip this time-1/2 hour of skimming the Neva River and Bay of Finland. And I decided not to tour the Palace as most readings said the grounds were more spectacular. I intended to spend a lovely leisurely day in the country…walking footpaths, writing postcards, eating an ice cream, and being amazed by the gravity operated fountains, many engineered and built by Peter himself. But then, this showed up.

I was woefully unprepared with light clothing, flats, and no poncho or umbrella. I got drenched, cold, and disheartened and had my first travel meltdown. Stuck until the hydrofoils operated again, I could only wait and shiver. Took the first one I could, got back to my hotel room as quickly as possible, threw wet things into the shower, curled up in a ball under the covers, and didn’t emerge until the next day.

But here’s what I did see of Peterhof before the storm…

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Tsarskoye Selo

or Catherine’s Summer Palace and Gardens are located outside of St. Petersburg. My journey began on the very efficient metro. Because SPb is built on marshland of the Neva River, the subway tunnels are VERY deep and I descended a single escalator for several minutes to arrive at the platform. For me, it was unnerving because a terrorist suicide bomb attack occurred on the SPb metro in April and while I wasn’t afraid of that, I was apprehensive of drowning in a submerged tunnel. (I blame the movie Poseidon Adventure for my irrationality on this one!) Anyway, after about 20 minutes, I stepped into the light and risked life and limb again by hailing a marshrutka. These are privately owned and operated nine passenger vans fitted out with about 18 seats and room to stand. They dart around on a fixed route that mimics the bus route but they start and stop anywhere along the way, often with a screech of brakes or peel of rubber. My van was loaded with about 25 tourists headed to the Palace about an hour before it even opened.

You can buy tickets online. And you can buy guided tours. I was unable to do either because they were sold out when I checked (about three weeks before my travels). Meaning I stood in a VERY long line just waiting for the doors to open to buy on the spot tickets. That line only got longer during my visit. It snaked through the grounds and moved at a snail’s pace. Once you got the privilege of entering, there were new queues for the ticket counters. It was a chaotic mad dash to choose the shortest line…but really there are no lines because this mass of humanity just pushed forward to the clerks. You were crumpled and pushed in a variety of languages with a minimum of courtesy.

After ticketing, you realize signage is quite horrible and I had no clue which new line to stand in. This was the beginning of my aversion to Japanese tour groups. Somehow, they are trained or told that queueing is for wimps, velvet ropes are for moving, photography not allowed signs only mean put away your selfie stick, selfies are required in each and every room, and the best way to see things is to snap a photo and another of the descriptive placard and move on…all in front of other tourists who are admiring the view. My only possible explanation for this behavior is they are given 30 minutes to see and do it all before reboarding their bus, so they really see nothing but where they’ve been in photos. It’s both sad and annoying.

Anyway, whether I was in the right or the wrong line, I saw the rooms and delights of Catherine’s Palace. Seeing the Amber Room (no photos allowed at all and they policed it) was worth everything before or after. It is amazing. Every inch of wall covered with amber mosaic or mirrors, lit by wall sconces, and glowing with golden warmth. (It is a replication of what was destroyed during WWII.) My other favorite “wing” was filled with devastating photos of the palace’s destruction, mostly by the Nazi regime, but also by Soviet nationalization and neglect. And then, quite abruptly, I ended up outside in a lovely garden, certainly the scene for engagement proposals and wedding photos. I spent more time wandering the paths and admiring the outbuildings, then retraced my journey all the way back to my home at Sky Hotel…thinking all the while that this is a place that needs to be Disneyfied for line control, signage, docents, food service, and making everyone “happy”. There are too many people to organize and yell at if you don’t. OR, I should have booked my tickets and tour six months in advance!

(u)   x(o)x

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Historic Heart

How thoughtful to put most of the sites of St. Petersburg within the “historic heart”. In addition to the hoho bus, I followed Lonely Planet’s Neighborhood Walk out of order to capture more photos, experiences, and flavors of this area.

The Russian Museum is a focused collection of…you guessed it…Russian art, housed in four palaces scattered along my walking path. I enthusiastically bought the combined ticket with a “do it in a day” mentality and quickly discovered the impossibility of that plan. My first stop was Mikhailovsky Castle, built in the early 1800’s for Tsar Paul I, a cruel tyrant who was suffocated in his bed. This Palace became a Military Engineering School before being restored to its original glory.

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After lunch at a chain sweet/savory pastry shop named Stolle, I immersed myself in more art and interiors at the main museum palace. Ultimately, closing time came before I was done! On the way home I saw another familiar chain and enjoyed a hot chocolate to take my mind away from some very tired feet.

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(u)   x(o)x

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