Russian River Cruise

Day 13 Saturday August 21, 2010
Moscow – London - Boston - Home

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Pancakes for me.

I was awake and active before seven on what would be, if everything went as planned, the longest day of my life up to this point. I reflected for a moment that it was not even midnight yet in the United States.

Eggs for Sue.

Breakfast was a little different on the last morning. They offered some kind of stew, which I selected instead of eggs. I added sausages, bacon, fruit, and some coffee. I also ordered the pancakes, which I would appraise as only so-so.

Breakfast, as you may know, is the most important meal of the day, and this day was thirty-two hours long. Best not to run the risk of starvation.

Back in the cabin I filled out my evaluation. I gave low marks to both of the city tours and to the Sergiev Posad fiasco. I gave high ratings to the Yusupov Palace and Tretyakov State Gallery tours. I thought that Mandrogi and Kizhi were a little silly. It would be nice if one of them could be replaced by something with a little more substance. Of course, there might not be anything in the north that would be more suitable.

Must remember to turn in the earpiece.

I decided to wear my black Moscow tee shirt. Since it was the only clean garment left, it was an easy choice. The front featured a colorful depiction of St. Basil’s, a structure that I did not recognize, and the Kremlin. The back listed each letter of the Russian alphabet in white with examples of words that contained them.

I have always brought an empty canvas duffle bag with me on European trips. After a little bit of maneuvering I determined that we would not need the extra bag, so I packed it back into the big red suitcase. This was a first.

Bags in the hallway.

Sue reported that her knee was really sore. I had been anxious that this trip would be too much for her to bear. This level of activity definitely seemed to mark the limit of what she could tolerate.

Patti told me that Sue was up all night packing. That I was unaware of this was a testament to the efficacy of the yellow ear plugs[1] that British Airways had given me on the flight from Boston and the brown sleeping mask left over from the Air France flight in 2009. I wonder if anyone ever buys sleeping masks or ear plugs.

We had been asked to vacate the cabin by 10 a.m. Sue did not cotton to the idea of leaving our luggage in the hall, but we did not have much choice. We set up camp on the Sun Deck. At first I sat with Sue and the Corcorans, but I later moved to another table in the sun to warm up and to try to get caught up on the journal. I had had no time to transcribe my notes since we arrived in Moscow, and I had amassed at least fifteen pages of cryptic scratchings in my spiral binder. The sun was hot, but the wind was cold. I had to change locations to try to minimize the breeze.

Romeo moved in on Sir Tom’s wives while the knight was fetching coffee.

Eileen, one of the English ladies, took my place at the Connecticut table and regaled my traveling companions with diverse tales. I swore that hidden BBC cameras had been secretly recording her antics with Mavis as a pilot for a sit-com.

A group of four people sat at a table near mine. Evidently planning their next stop in Finland, they were perusing guidebooks and planning excursions.

Romeo, the bartender on duty, still addressed Tom as “Sir Thomas.”

Lunch was whatever was left from supper.

The four of us stopped in at the ship’s restaurant for a quick lunch at noon. I neglected to write down what they served. Very few people were dining. Most had already departed for one airport or another.

The bus for those of us who were flying to London was scheduled to depart at 12:30. Our ship had moved to the first position on the pier, which meant that we did not need to walk through another ship. For some reason we exited from the deck that our cabin was on rather than the one that contained the registration desk. This faked out nearly everyone.

Our last view of the Surkov.

We were surprised to discover that people were already beginning to board the Surkov for the next tour. It just seemed wrong. The Surkov was ours. It should be put in a museum or something, or at least retired for a reasonable period.

We were able to identify all of our luggage on the dock without incident. Then we said good-bye to the Surkov. It had been, all things considered, a pleasant way to travel.

This ride was in the park adjacent to the river port. We never saw anyone on it.

I think that we might have been the only people from the United States on the bus. The Canadian who had purchased the Super Hooch and his wife and some people from Australia and New Zealand were aboard, but most of the passengers were British. The tour guide Galina accompanied us on the bus. She warned us that the Domodedovo (Домодедово) airport was the longest drive of the three. It could possibly take two and a half hours.

We encountered heavy traffic as we headed north on the Leningrad Highway, but the MKAD was not that bad when we finally reached it.

Flats were everywhere in Moscow.

Moscow is relatively flat, but I could not see the city center from the ring road. I did get a glimpse of one of the Seven Sisters, but I was unable to identify which one. By my calculation we were only about ten miles west of the city.

We passed a huge parking lot that was full or nearly so. On one side was an IKEA, and the opposite end was anchored by an Auchan (Ашан) supermarket. It was on the other side of the bus, so I could not get a photo. I guess that not all Muscovites spend every weekend of the summer at their dachas.

A disconcerting view from the bus.

Traffic slowed down considerably at one point. The cause was a pair of accidents, one on each side of the barrier. On our side a car was turned almost 180 degrees, but no one seemed surprised or alarmed. The delay was not too bad.

Why, you may be wondering, is the traffic in Moscow so bad. The simple answer is that there are too many people living in too small an area. Compare it with Los Angeles, which has 3.83 million people living in an area of 469.1 square miles. Moscow has ten or eleven million people living in only 386 square miles.

At least the MKAD was moving.

The second factor is that the roads were not laid out well. The Soviets designed the city under the assumption that the comrades would use mass transit, not horseless carriages, and they were expected to shop, attend school, and do chores without leaving their neighborhoods. In the twentieth century many of them had cars, and they used them. There were only two big ring roads and a dozen or so spoke roads that led to the center of the city. These roads were forced to bear an inordinate share of the traffic because the secondary roads were not up to it. No matter where you wanted to go, there was only one way to get there.

Unfortunately, it was likely to get worse, perhaps much worse. Unlike the rest of Russia, in 2010 the city was growing rapidly, and the percentage of car ownership was not only increasing more rapidly; it still had plenty of room to grow. Half or more of the families in Moscow still did not own cars. There was plenty of undeveloped space on the outside of the MKAD. Surely the city would expand past that point. If not, I could not imagine where they would put the people.

On the side of the MKAD away from Moscow we passed a huge complex called Vegas. We naturally assumed that it was a casino, but, in fact, the Russian casinos had all been closed down in 2009 by order of the Medvedev government. This was actually a gigantic theme-based shopping center. So, if I understand correctly, this was an attempt to create a phony replica of a place that was itself completely phony. I wondered whether they had dummy slot machines, craps tables, and roulette wheels and replicas of show girls. Galina told us that there was an Auchan supermarket in there somewhere.

Bigger houses south of Moscow.

We passed a power plant that was by far the largest that I had ever seen. It had at least five or six cooling towers. Hundreds of lines ran from it in every direction.

Next I saw a very large number of vehicles under a banner that read “Автопарк.” I was able to determine from the other signage that the enterprise offered truck and auto sales.

After an hour or so the bus left the MKAD on the south side of Moscow and drove away from the city. I was surprised that the airport was so far out in the boondocks. It was as far from the MKAD as the highway was from the center of town. So we drove through quite a lot of area that looked absolutely nothing like Moscow. All told, it took us about one and a half hours to get from the ship to the airport.

Domodedovo comes into view.

Domodedovo was much larger than the St. Petersburg airport, but the pickup and delivery area was just as chaotic. Evidently Russians just do not know how to do airports. We had to park the bus in a spot that required us to cross several streets to get to the terminal. Furthermore, the bus driver unloaded the luggage from the dangerous side. I really thought that there was a strong possibility that someone would be injured, but we all survived.

Nowhere for the bus to leave us off.

We were met at the airport by the person whom Galina referred to as “the manager.” She was a short young lady whom I had seen talking with Konstantin on the pier a few days earler. I guess that she must have been an executive with the company for which Galina and the other tour guides worked.

Only the strong, the swift, and the brave would make it from the bus to the terminal.

When most of us had located our luggage, Galina led us in the dangerous trek to get across the driveways to the terminal. Galina just put her head down and walked through the traffic, but the rest of us were toting luggage, and we did not know the incantation that made the Moscow drivers stop for pedestrians.

Galina (in the red jacket) got us to the desk for our flight. Now what?

Galina then led us over to desk #44, which was evidently where we were supposed to check in for the flight. However, the line was not moving at all. We later learned that it did not open until a specific time. So we just had to stand around for a half hour. I found my way to the restroom.

The Russian gentleman employed as an agent by British Airways did not seem to like the fact that I took a photo or two. He announced loudly that there were no movie stars there, presumably to get me to put away my camera. I did so. When we finally got to check in, he asked me how I enjoyed celebrating my birthday in Russia. He had deduced that I had done so by looking at my visa.

The rest of the terminal was very active.

This marked the beginning of the adventure of Patti’s backpack. For some reason that none of us ever figured out, the British Air employees said that it could not come with us. It had to be put on an elevator that was inaccessible to the passengers. So, we had no choice but to go up on the escalators, while Patti’s backpack went up by itself. She was able to retrieve it without difficulty, but who knows what the Russkies did to it when it was out of her possession?

We just stood there.

Russian security is different. They make you take your shoes off as any right-thinking such organization would, but they then make you put on little plastic socks. It was not clear whether they were protecting the feet from the floor or vice-versa. These were the same kind of socks that we had had to wear in the Katherine Palace. I strongly suspected that one of the oligarchs was making a fortune selling these things to Putin and Medvedev.

Patti and Tom then ventured into one of the duty-free shops to purchase a bottle of vodka for one of Patti’s brothers. I was a little put out that they did not solicit my opinion as to what the best brand and flavor were.

A lot of airlines fly to Domodedovo from all over the world.

We located our gate without any difficulty. Sue and I found adjacent seats in the gate area. This was quite an accomplishment; most people had to stand. Tom went looking for a beer. Patti tried to buy a bottle of water from a machine. She got one with gas and one without. I read the labels for her.

My seat was on the wing.

I read a little of the book[2] that I had brought on the trip, and I dozed a little. Patti mostly played with her iPad. She had some very nice pictures, especially of Moscow by night. As always, I was jealous when I saw them.

Our plane departed right on time at 5:30. My experience with international flights had been uniformly positive in that regard. In my window seat I worked on the computerized version of my journal. Shrek 3 was the movie. I sat next to Patti, who had developed a pretty bad Moscough.[3] She was on the aisle; there was no middle seat. Tom sat by himself. Sue sat in an area that had slightly more leg room. I did not write down what they called it.

My hotel pen ran out of ink! This was a rare occasion. I almost always lost pens before they ran out of ink. I had several more with me, so I suffered little inconvenience.

Anyone recognize this?

For my first supper of the day I had tomato (tuh MAH toe) juice, chicken and pasta with marinara sauce, a truly awful salad, and an equally bad roll with the same butter (масло) as served on the ship. The chocolate square for dessert was not bad. They served Diet Coke, not Coke Light, in the same miniature cans as on the first flight. I also had a cup of coffee.

British Airways had a strict regimen for serving meals: cold drinks first, then the meal, then hot drinks. They were very reluctant to waiver from this arrangement. If you wanted coffee with your meal, you were out of luck.

Supper on the first flight.

For a moment I thought that my computer’s battery had died, but my panic was premature. I must have done something that sent it into hibernation or something.

Our connection in London was pretty tight. We had to hurry to get to our gate, which was, according to the signs, fifteen minutes away by escalator and train. We also had to go through security again. There was a problem. Because of our bizarre tickets, Tom had to get a seat assignment. This took a couple of minutes. Then they insisted that he had to check his bag with the vodka in it. This took surprisingly little time.

Our flight closed at 7:15. I arrived at the gate at a little after seven. I had hurried ahead to get in line so that they would know that four of us were coming. Sue was at her wit’s end with all of the walking. Her feet had swollen up during the first flight, and she was in a lot of pain. Sue and Patti got to sit in business class. I had an aisle seat. I think that they put Tom in with the luggage.

A book by a dead Communist was de rigeur on this trip.

They started serving (another) supper almost as soon as we reached ten thousand feet. There seemed to be a very large number of vegetarian meals. The gentleman in the window seat of my row refused his. This caused some consternation among the crew.

The (non-vegetarian) supper was beef with vegetables and potatoes, a roll that was better than the one on the previous flight, and a much better salad with Italian dressing. The fellow in front of me was Italian. The stewardess spoke to him in his native language, but she could not remember the Italian word for beef. I considered helping her remember “manzo,” but then he said, “Beef, I understand.”

The middle section of the plane seemed to be full of Pakistanis. Were they all evacuating from the flood? The bulkhead row in the center had a small table in front of it. A gentleman put a baby on it. I could not tell if he was changing the kid’s diaper or what. It seemed very weird, but we westerners had best get used to the fact that we were in a minority, and our culture would not be dominant for long.

For some reason I took no photos at all on the second flight.

I would never go on a long journey without these babies.

I tried to sleep. The blue neck pillow was a great blessing, but it was still very cramped. I slept fitfully at best the entire way from London to Boston. When we emerged from the plane I was groggy and cranky.

Sue, however, was in a much better mood than she had been in London. She had been able to stretch out her legs and raise her feet. She and Patti had shared a little compartment that was difficult to describe. It was sort of like a love seat. One of them faced forward, and one faced back. Their chairs could be adjusted to go nearly horizontal.

The passport control line in Boston was not as horrendous as what we had experienced in 2007. I stood behind an extremely short red-headed girl with a Bulgarian passport. I was afraid that there would be a problem, but the agent let her through even though she was in the line for American citizens. Maybe she was a double agent.

The only chore remaining to be done was to collect our luggage. Alas, we proved more adept at speeding through Heathrow than our luggage did. The lady from British Airways at the luggage belt already knew that our bags had not been loaded onto the flight. We had to spend ten or fifteen minutes filling out forms. They promised to deliver them to our houses on Sunday. This was certainly going to cost British Airways a few pounds.

The cabbie was definitely licensed.

Tom and I considered it a blessing that we did not need to schlep the luggage around the airport and load it into Sue’s car. Sue was upset that she did not have her CPAP machine, and both Sue and Patti were understandably worried about whether British Airways would be up to the task of locating and delivering all of the bags.

We made our way to the taxi stand. We told the cab driver that we needed to go to Lexington. He was shaky about it, but Tom knew the way. The gentleman’s driving was a little erratic. We were quite pleased when he pulled into the driveway of David’s house. Tom speculated that he might not have been able to see too well in the dark. Yikes!

Sue was ready to roll.

We piled into Sue’s car for the drive to Wethersfield. At this point it had been approximately twenty-four hours since we got out of bed on the ship. Sue, however, was full of energy and wanted to drive. I tried to get some z’s in the back seat. She made it to Wethersfield, but for the last few miles she was even more erratic than the taxi driver had been.

We let the Corcorans off at their house. I volunteered to drive the last leg. If I had not piped up, I think that Tom and Patti would have insisted on it. I had been sleeping on and off for several hours at that point. I had husbanded most of the contents of a bottle of Diet Coke that we had purchased at a previous stop. It was warm, but it had caffeine. I had no trouble making it home.

We did not see either of the cats when we entered the house at about 2 a.m. Our trips were never complete until the last cat had been accounted for. Within five minutes Giacomo appeared out of nowhere on his favorite corner of the bed. At first he seemed not to remember me, but eventually he warmed up. Franklin was sighted early on Sunday morning.

A courier delivered the luggage late Sunday evening. The Corcorans also received their luggage at about the same time.

For the first time that we could remember, Sue and I did not get Kentucky Fried Chicken the first night that we were home. For some reason we did not have the same craving for good old American grease that had afflicted us on all of our previous European journeys.

Goals of the trip: 1) I certainly did not forget about work. 2) I learned an astounding number of facts about Russia, and a rather high percentage of them were probably true. 3) At least a few of my photos qualified as “startlingly good,” at least by my standards. I was very satisfied with the performance of my camera. 4) There was, alas, no chance at all to converse with an ordinary Russian citizen. My command of the language was not close to good enough to try to engage anyone in Uglich or Yaroslavl. The tour guides were always on duty, and the opinions that they voiced seemed a little Pasteurized. The only other Russians whom we encountered were members of the restaurant staff, and they too were on duty. The bar staff was mostly Filipino.

Oh, well, two out of four was not too bad.

What I really liked: our cabin, Polina, St. Petersburg, the Tretyakov Gallery, our waitresses, the history lectures.

What I really disliked: vodka, Moscow traffic, the ship’s wireless bandwidth, Sergiev Posad.

What I saw too much of: icons, onion domes, slow-moving cars from the bus window, face lifts, apartment buildings, smog.

What I saw too little of: ordinary Russians, interesting scenery. The thing that I missed the most was the cameraderie that emerged from each of the European bus tours that we had taken. On every one of those trips we met some interesting people with whom we had maintained communication. Others may well have achieved this on this tour, too, but I have never been adroit at engaging people over short periods of time. The Rick Steves tours forced the group members to do a lot together.

All in all, it was a good trip. I would definitely like to spend more time in St. Petersburg.

[1]  The ear plugs did not match. One compressed down to about an eighth of an inch. The other scarcely compressed at all.

[2]  Tom had lent me a copy of the paperback version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I had seen at least five other people reading this book on the ship, and I did not see any other books. Furthermore, the Wednesday after I returned I played bridge with a lady who was raving about it.

[3]  Worse: bronchitis.