Old And

Renovated. Rebuilt. Run down. Ruined.

Treasured. Memorialized. Exploited. Feared.

Vibrant. Lovely. Peaceful. Seedy. Scummy.

Compatible. Competitive. Complicated. Confrontational. Controlled. Killed.

My travels to St. Petersburg and through the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania revealed contrasts that are as difficult to describe as they are to experience. Let’s begin at my beginning…

The morning after flying into Tallinn I rode a bus for about six hours to arrive in St. Petersburg. In the bleak Soviet styled river town of Narva we spent an additional two hours at the border crossing between Estonia and Russia. The Estonian side was policed by armed border guards, dogs, and a tall, spiked, iron fence. Despite only giving them my American passport, they knew I lived in France and came looking for me to obtain my French credentials. Crossing the river to the Russian side was more nerve-wracking and definitely more barb-wired. First, an armed guard boarded the bus and stamped our personal entry document. Then, at a second militarized checkpoint, we disembarked with our hand luggage and were “processed” by passport control. After reboarding, the bus proceeded to a gated guardhouse (the kind James Bond would have smashed through) where another armed guard came to make sure all of our documents were stamped. I was grateful a Russian citizen was sitting next to me explaining the instructions in English. Despite this, I still felt vulnerable and like I was losing my freedom. My mind ran rampant with fragments of stories about detainees. Don’t smile. Don’t look anyone in the eyes. Don’t say hello.

The drive through northern Estonia was mostly green. Pine and spruce and birch forests. Farm fields of rye and barley, rapeseed and rolled haybales. Wildflowers, including Queen Anne’s lace the size of sunflowers. An occasional village, an occasional farm, a more than occasional occupied stork’s nest. The drive through northern Russia was also green and interspersed with shack villages whose proud owners cultivated the most beautiful and colorful flower and vegetable gardens on their small plots. The outskirts of St. Petersburg offered crumbling on the outside concrete apartment block complexes- a sea of grey Legos hiding the pastel palaced Imperial old city.

Arriving at St. Petersburg’s main bus terminal without google maps and not understanding the signs, I attempted to get roubles from an ATM and got rejected. Frantic, I searched the station and found a different bank’s ATM to get 500 roubles…less than $10. Knowing I needed exact change (40 kopeks) for the bus into town, I bought a coke-no help there. So I exited the station and walked toward where I thought the city buses would be based on a map I printed in advance. Attempting to follow my predownloaded plan, I boarded a bus with fingers crossed and found out that each bus has a “rider” who is also the ticket agent. My rider spoke only Russian but I was lucky to have a passenger who could interpret the ticket/money exchange and confirm my bus plans. However, I overstopped my exit and walked several blocks back toward where my hotel was located. On the way, I passed a phone store and practically hugged the clerk who spoke English and sold me a SIM card. Feeling slightly more confident, it was hotel by numbers as not much was signed. Although I wasn’t sure at the time, I found the iron entry gate into a shabby cobbled courtyard, located the crumbling on the outside building, searched for the elevator around a hidden corner and pressed 6, and voila! stepped out into a tiny but pleasant front desk area brightly lit and with a glass-doored refrigerator holding beverages and snacks. Checked in, bought a water and a chocolate bar for dinner, acclimated to my quirky room and crashed. My fears and confusion had turned some easy bus rides into an emotionally demanding day.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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This is Soooo My City

There’s a new festival today-Fête de la Mojito! I just love it when the french decide to use ice. 🙂

(u)   x(o)x

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Le Canicule

Otherwise felt as the heat wave. Practically all of France has been suffering le canicule since last Sunday and while relief may come as early as tomorrow, this particular wave is the worst since 1945. Specifically, and based on geographical region, le canicule is only declared when three successive day and night cycles exceed certain minimum temperatures. In Bordeaux, those temps are 35° daytime and 21° nighttime. (95°/70°). Our recorded temps have been over 100°/80°. There is no opportunity for the infrastructure (stone buildings, paved roads, etc.) to cool off and even a breeze is as hot as the Sahara! Except for cars, most places do not have air conditioning, or it’s not turned on in a way to be cool…only cooler than outside. There are few places to go to escape…but my favorite is the local Picard store…which sells only frozen food! On Sunday, I’m buying a used portable a/c unit…a luxury that may not be cost effective to operate. But during le canicule, I will gladly max out my electricity bill just to avoid being in a 24/7 sauna. In the meantime and on the happy side, clothes take only minutes to air dry!

(u)   x(o)x

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Afternoon at the Louvre

It sounds like the title of an Impressionist painting, doesn’t it? During my recent day trip to Paris, I decided to visit the Louvre and particularly a temporary exhibit of Vermeer. I had to orchestrate things carefully to catch my evening train since my timed entry to Vermeer was quite late and the two lines for entry took about an hour. So, I did things backwards. I ate lunch in the museum restaurant, then shopped in the museum gift shop. Then I headed to the top floors to view the European painters and stayed totally clear of Mona Lisa and David. This is what I liked the most…

(u)   x(o)x

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Mini V to the Pyrénées

Four women driving off to the mountains. Looking to explore and adventure. Of various ages and abilities to hike, get a sunburn, tolerate a hammam, and operate a stick shift. All desiring to return someday.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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Happy Father’s Day

Daddy ride on your shoulders, Dad borrow your car, Grandpa sit on your lap, Gramps hear your story, Uncles learn to play poker go over for a bbq, Brothers being good men, Husband once father forever, and Son, someday may be Daddy ride on your shoulders. Even if it’s a cat.

(u)   x(o)x

 

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My Wimbledon

From May 14…I had no plans or expectations for Mother’s Day. So it was easy to accept R and T’s invitation to join them at a historic tennis club in Caudéran named Villa Primrose. I’ve been there before on a neighborhood tour and for lunch…I imagine it’s smaller, yet similar to golf clubhouses, although you overlook the courts. In other words, very nice with a lot of tanned and buff “players” emphasizing my very visual lack of outdoor sports participation!

I had the most wonderful time watching tournament qualifying matches for internationally ranked men’s singles. The speed and force of play amazed me and yes, my head bobbed from side to side just like in cartoons. The rituals surrounding line calling and scoring and collecting loose tennis balls fascinated me. It was bright and hot in the stands and I wished one of the “shade umbrella children” would have been my personal attendant!

We chose to stay for a two bottle of wine brunch on the terrace…delicious salads, crêpes, pastries, and fried and hard boiled eggs, along with every kind of charcuterie I’ve ever seen. Good thing we rode bikes to the Villa…I think I wobbled a bit on the way home!

(u)   x(o)x

 

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A Mary Poppins Day

From April 30…Yesterday was a Mary Poppins day. Storms blew through and if your umbrella didn’t take you to the family across the river, it transformed into an ineffective upward parabola with its hoop skirt showing. I needed to feed K’s cats so had no choice but to bluster my way to her apartment, umbrella grasped and facing toward the whirling twirling wind like a jousting lance. But, like Mary Poppins who always saw the bright spot in everything, I am so glad I went out. At my bright spot, it was raining pink petals from the trees and the effect was like walking into fairyland. I missed a perfect photo op (dang) but still managed a few after the tempest. Someone should market a machine that would do this at weddings and such…it was beautiful.

(u)   x(o)x

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Emmanuel Macron

I am immensely proud of France and french support for our new President, Emmanuel Macron. He continues to demonstrate qualities of a world leader, capable economist, progressive thinker, savvy compromiser, and inclusive politician. In about one month, he filled his cabinet (1/2 of the positions are held by women), solidified France’s commitment to the EU, acknowledged (albeit disagreed) with the political platform of the Front National extreme right, developed an equal and amicable relationship with other world leaders, and set in motion changes to french policy which should help unemployment, health care, education, infrastructure, climate change, taxes, anti-terrorism, pensions, and fair trade. In June, the legislators will be elected and I think it’s likely there will be a mandate for Macron’s “En Marche!” party priorities. It is a time when France feels hopeful, confident, valuable, and vital on the global stage. The optimism is contagious; positive results seem inevitable, pride and patriotism have been renewed, and amazingly, LOTS of french people are genuinely HAPPY!

(u)   x(o)x

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Baudelaire, Balzac, and Bistrots

I don’t know if the café culture was born in Paris, but it certainly thrived there during the early 20th century…an age of writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians exploring their creativity among glasses of wine and absinthe, and tiny cups of espresso the morning after. Today’s wandering through the temporary exhibit, Bistrot! From Baudelaire to Picasso, was two hours of enjoyment followed by an easy lunch at the museum’s bistrot. The art was well presented, described in three languages, and varied by artist, material, composition, and year. There was even a staged bistrot setting with seats and tables and bistrot scenes from movies playing on three of the walls. I’ve included some of my favorites. I wish I could include a glass of wine!

(u)   x(o)x

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