Russian River Cruise

Day 0 Sunday August 8, 2010
Home - Boston - London

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Smoke gets in your eyes (and nose and mouth).

For the week or so preceding our trip the newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet had been highlighting the unprecedented 100-degree temperatures in Moscow and the vicinity. Fires in the surrounding area have produced horrendous smoke, even in Moscow’s Metro. We – myself, my life companion Sue Comparetto, and our friends of thirty-eight years, Tom and Patti Corcoran – have all been more than a little worried about this. However, recent weather reports had indicated that St. Petersburg, which is where our cruise originates, is much cooler than Moscow. Furthermore, Moscow was expected to have cooled off and cleared up by the time that we dock there in a week and a half.

The cat owner’s friend.

At 4 a.m. on Sunday I got out of bed to get a drink of water. I was surprised to hear a plaintive feline cry emanating from the hallway. This could be my chance. Franklin, the more elusive of our two cats, had theretofore evaded our best efforts to administer his flea drops. I surmised that he, rather than his brother Giacomo,[1] was the source of the racket. When Giacomo was hungry, he generally just paraded into the bedroom and chowed down. Franklin’s fear (or maybe hatred) of me, on the other hand, often compelled him to complain about my presence in or near the room that contained his food. I stood stock-still in the kitchen for several minutes. Then I crept back to the bedroom.

Aha! Both of the cats were at the food bowl. I snuck in and closed the door behind me. They were trapped. Giacomo, who already had received his monthly treatment, calmly jumped up on the bed in anticipation of some early morning petting. Franklin, on the other hand, cowered beneath the bed, where he knew that I could not reach him. On previous such occasions I had removed both the box springs and mattress and chased him around the room until I finally had him cornered. This time, however, time was on my side. I decided just to wait him out. Forty long minutes transpired before he too sprung up on the bed. I gingerly petted him for a few seconds. When he seemed calm, I applied the Frontline between his shoulder blades and then opened the door.

Victory was mine! We would be able to return to our humble abode in two weeks without worrying about the flea colonies within.

Chick again assured us that he would feed the cats.

A word about the cats: They have their own door. Our friend Chick Comparetto agreed to make sure that they had enough food. In all of our previous trips, this arrangement had worked fine. We kept out fingers crossed.

Sue, as is her habit, stayed up all night packing. I, in contrast, am a morning person. We often intersect at about 5 a.m.

Giacomo on his corner. He wants you to notice that he has thumbs on his front paws.

The weather was very nice in New England. It was in the seventies in the morning. It probably reached the high eighties after we departed.

While I was packing, Giacomo sat right next to the big red suitcase on the corner of the bed to which he had long ago laid claim. I could not avoid thinking about my old buddy Woodrow, now deceased for a few years, who would pack himself in the suitcase whenever I went on a trip.

That truck was not in the parking lot when we arrived. The blue wagon is Sue\’s Subaru.

At a little after six, Sue and I decided to go to Bickford’s for breakfast. We were a little surprised not to see a single car in the parking lot. We were afraid that they had not opened yet, but in fact we were the very first customers of the day.

I had pigs in blankets, which at Bickford’s means three sausage links wrapped in pancakes. Sue ordered a three-pancake stack with bacon. Another Sue, the waitress, started the coffee brewing as soon as we walked in the door, and she kept it coming at our table.

I experimented with my new camera, a Canon with a 12x zoom and stabilizing software. Although my past record as a vacationing photographer was not very good, I was somewhat hopeful that more of my pictures will be usable now that I had superior equipment. From inside the restaurant I snapped photos of the nearly empty parking lot from various angles and with various settings. I was soon shocked when the camera said to replace the battery. I was pretty sure that I had recently charged the one that was in there, but fortunately I had brought a spare. So, after two abortive attempts in which the flash failed to fire, Sue the waitress was able to take a fairly decent shot of the two of us.

The plush pillow is much better than the blow-up one.

I paid for breakfast with my credit card, but I signed the wrong copy of the receipt. The waitress ran out to my car to get me to sign her copy. After she had returned inside, I discovered the cap to her pen in my hand. Sue let me off by the door, and I ran in and left it on the rostrum near the entrance.

Several hours still remained before we had to leave. I took the time to compose an important business e-mail, and I sent it. I had a bad feeling about it, but I resolved not to dwell on it for two weeks. Then I started packing. I was very pleased with myself for remembering to bring my blue U-shaped pillow. I will be sitting in coach on all four flights. For a pencil-necked geek like myself that pillow can really be valuable on long flights. Its only disadvantage is its bulk.

Sue and Patti rest in the shade while Tom tries to roust his brother.

As has become our custom, we were traveling with our long-time friends, Tom and Patti Corcoran. Our itinerary called for us to fly from Boston to London via British Airways and, the next day, to fly from Heathrow to St. Petersburg. Our plan was to drive south-southwest[2] to the Corcorans’ house in Wethersfield. Then the four of us would take Sue’s Subaru to the house of Tom’s brother David in Lexington, MA. We would stop somewhere for lunch with him, and then he would drive us to the airport.

As I packed, I realized that I was missing quite a few items. On the way to the Corcorans’ house, we therefore stopped at the office so that I could retrieve my umbrella, some pens, a spiral notebook, and USB cables. I printed out the boarding passes from the e-mail that Sue had sent me. I was surprised to see that they were only for the first leg from Boston to London.

We arrived at the Corcorans’ a little early, but they were almost ready. We packed up Sue’s car with all of our luggage. Sue was exhausted, so she asked me to drive. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30. So, we needed to get to Logan by about 3:30. I drove to David’s, and it was a little after 2:00 by the time that we arrived. After a few social amenities we headed for the airport with the intention of grabbing some pizza at a place that David knew of near the airport.

This is the entrance to Santarpio\’s. Really.

David and his family have a really beautiful house in Lexington, and all of the surrounding houses are quite nice, too. We were all happy to discover that David’s Acura wagon was even more spacious than Sue’s Subaru Outback. It easily held all five of us and our luggage.

That\’s David in the foreground. All of the pizza comes to the waiters and waitresses through that little window in the center of the photo.

We stopped at an old working-class place named Santarpio’s in Boston’s east end. While I was outside taking photos, the others ordered the pizza – sausage and mushroom for us; pepperoni for the Corcorans. We had truly delicious sausage with bread as an appetizer. Tom and David washed them down with Rolling Rock. I had a Diet Coke. The place was not the speediest. Unfortunately, we were beginning to run out of time and had to get the pizza to go. They wrapped both pies in paper, which none of us had ever seen. The plan was to eat it in the car, but that turned out not to be feasible. So, when we got to the airport we took the pizza with us, which meant that David did not get any.

The delivery of pizza to the adjoining table got our hopes (and hunger) up, but ...

The line at the British Air counter was a bit frightening, but it moved rather quickly. The agent inquired about our pizza, which I was carrying while we checked in. She asked the name of the establishment, but I could remember only the first four letters.

... we ended up eating at the airport.

After we checked in, the four of us grabbed some vacant seats in the lobby and glommed down the pizza. I thought it was pretty good, although the crust was a little hard to take. The other three people had lower opinions. We thought about saving a slice to present to David in two weeks, but we were afraid that the customs authorities might not allow it.

As I was going through security, for several minutes I could not find my boarding pass. I had to let the person behind me go through first. I was nearly in a state of panic. I finally discovered that for some stupid reason I had deposited it in my backpack.[3]

The world from seat 45A.

As we were sitting in the waiting area for our flight, we were entertained by increasingly desperate announcements from Alitalia about its flight to Rome’s Fumicino airport. Evidently someone named Maher, Timothy, had not appeared, and the airlines was about to remove his luggage from the airplane. There was still no sign of him when we boarded. I voiced my sympathy for the people on the Italian plane because they would have to sit on the runway until all of Timothy’s bags were extracted.

While we were waiting, Tom did some kind of involved Japanese number puzzles. Sue and Patti drank some water. I got myself a Diet Coke. It probably would be the last one that I would see for quite a while.

Tilting at windmills.

My seat was #45A, a window seat on the left side. What a break! The plane was almost full, but no one occupied the middle seat. A kid was behind me, which meant that I could expect to be kicked in the back a few times, but the room to stretch out my right leg, the one with tendinitis, more than made up for it.

I noticed during the safety briefing that British Air still employed bits of the famous duet from Delibes’ opera Lakmé, but it has been somewhat stylized. They also relied on cartoon figures to demonstrate the evacuation procedure.

It turned out that the airline had to remove the luggage for someone from our flight, too. Even so, the plane took off only a few minutes late. We were not even slightly concerned. We were facing a long layover in Heathrow anyway.

The plane was a 747-400. I had never flown on a 747 before. If you do not go up to the upper deck, it is just like any other plane. We had purchased some kind of premium seating for Sue and Patti. Tom and I, however, were in steerage, and we were not even seated together. I could see the back of his head a few rows in front of me.

Yes, I know that I just finished eating all of that pizza. What is your point?

The guy in the aisle seat in my row ordered a Coke. They brought him a 150 ml. can. It was the smallest that I had ever seen. I had tomato juice. I was not embarrassed to say “tuh MAY toe.”

From my seat I could see lighthouses and windmills along the coast just east of Boston. This would be a good test for the zoom and the stabilizing software. The distance was considerable.

I started this journal. My plan was, as before, to take notes every day in my spiral notebook and to transcribe them to the Netbook whenever the opportunity arose. I started by reading over the materials from Viking River Cruises. There was not much there to attract my attention, but I did notice that we would be on the ship on Friday the thirteenth and that we would dock in Uglich on my birthday, the seventeenth. I then created thirteen empty pages in the Netbook’s word processing program and filled in the header information for each day.

I doubt that they will serve this dessert in Russia.

What was this? The computer flashed an announcement that it was “Preparing to stand by.” Fortunately, it came back almost immediately. I wondered what I did to cause it.

The camera battery needed changing again. This was troubling. I had planned on taking hundreds of photos every day, and I only had three rechargeable batteries. I needed to be confident that I would not run out of juice before I got a chance to recharge them.

For supper the flight attendants brought salmon and pasta or chicken in some weird orange sauce, rice, broccoli and carrots. I went for the chicken, which was also accompanied by a hard roll. I figured that there would be plenty of chances to eat fish in Russia. Dessert was cheesecake with mango and passion fruit sauce. The best part was a piece of chocolate, which I saved for the end. The coffee (or tea) was served after the meal. The food was edible, but I would not characterize it as good.

A quick look at the flight map before trying to get some Z’s.

Every passenger got a little package that included a miniature toothbrush and enough toothpaste to brush three or four teeth, earplugs, headphones, and a flimsy sleeping mask. I had brought two sleeping masks of my own, but I did keep the toothbrush and toothpaste and the earplugs, which seemed to work quite well.

I slept fitfully, which was to be expected. This was an awfully short night. We lost five hours en route. Every time that I looked at Tom, he had his reading light on. However, when I asked him, he said that he had slept a little.

We flew over Newfoundland, Ireland, and Wales. They served us water and a prepackaged cranberry muffin just before we landed. I drank the water and stowed the muffin in my backpack.

Because of a strong tailwind, the flight to Heathrow only consumed five and a half hours. We left Boston a little after 6 p.m. and arrived just before 5 a.m. That means that it was still Sunday on the east coast!

Goals of the trip: 1) Forget about work. This will not be easy. Important things are occurring. 2) Learn as much as possible about Russia. 3) Take some startlingly good pictures with my new camera. 4) Engage a Russian in a meaningful conversation that does not involve nesting dolls. My Russian is probably not good enough to use in this endeavor, but maybe I can find someone who knows English or Italian and has been looking for an ugly American to harangue.

[1]  Although Giacomo and Franklin are both black with no markings, they are fairly easy to distinguish. I have previously devised an SAT-like analogy question that explicates the difference. Click here.

[2]  This continued our tradition of beginning every trip by traveling in precisely the wrong direction.

[3]  As will soon enough become evident, I have always had a real problem keeping track of my personal belongings. In fact, I need a valet. I had a miserable record over the years of losing all kinds of things on trips. Over the years I had left behind a quantity of clothing that almost certainly exceeds the amount in my closet. I have lost many other items as well. One thing that I had never lost was a boarding pass, and I was greatly relieved that this was not the first time.