Baltic Cruise Memoir

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Tourists are forever writing of their experiences so I will give my take on part of a recent cruise to the Baltic Sea. This was nearly a year ago. Sleep was my bugaboo!. The hassles brought on by jet lag, engine noise, lost bags frustrated my whole experience on this trip. I tried everything to fall asleep–booze, drugs, gambling, reading, sheep.

About 4 AM one morning after another sleepless night I went out on the balcony (by this time we had moved to a much better room). I watched the sun come up while cruising through the long waterway/canal that leads from the Baltic to St. Petersburg. I was really spaced out and was watching this incredible sunrise half way on the other side of the world. We were going into that amazing city that Peter the Great built in the early 18th Century to give Russia a port on the sea. Having had no sleep, the thought that I had one of the longest days of tourism ahead of me was almost more than I could imagine. These two days in St. Petersburg were to be the highlight of the trip and the most interesting from my historical interests but I doubted I would have the endurance to appreciate them. My brother Joe and his wife Carolyn joined Jamie and I on this 10 day cruise. They had been to Russia several times, had friends there and knew some Russian. We had a most surreal experience that first day which (you must understand) was seen through the eyes of a walking zombie.

We pull into the dock at 7 AM and soon a small band started playing on the pier just below our stateroom. They played mostly American show tunes–with gusto. They continued to play until all the passengers departed in busses for tourist destinations. These musicians worked solely for tips. They were former full-time musicians reduced to begging for a hard-scrabble life–they were not San Francisco street musicians! These were mostly middle-aged and older men. After the sunrise it was my first experience in this proud and struggling country of the amazing inequities and the incredible filth and chaos along side incredible art and beauty. I had many feelings of being the “ugly American” that day. Those musicians were on that dock playing whenever people left or boarded the ship. I tried some limited conversation with some of them. They had a tuba player and we developed a fleeting friendship. Even here I was reminded of American dominance in language. What little we did communicate was because he knew some rudimentary English, not because I knew any Russian–of course this is true all aver the world. What right do we have to only speak one language? I’m sure that, if I had not been so damn tired, I would have been more upbeat and some the these negative things would not have bothered me so much. Several of the tourist venues had free-lance bands playing at their entrances in ragged uniforms–for tips.

Open tourism is relatively new in Russia and it was the only place where we needed special visas to get away from the guided ship tours. They were expensive but allowed us to meet with Joe and Carolyn’s friends who were to be our guides for two days. We thought it would be very interesting to have such a personal tour–and it was. It allowed us to do really unusual things to say the least–how about hitch hiking? We were about the only passengers who were going our own way and so when we left the ship we were really on own. Arrangements had been made with our Russian friends to meet them at the main gate to the shipyard–which was a run down customs facility. But even getting to the gate (2 miles) from the ship was daunting. We ended up paying something like $10 apiece for a one min ride–in dollars of course.

When we got through customs we met our guide, Larisa Stolovitsky (Lara), who was waiting with a 30sh young man (our chauffeur) in a big black Chevy Caprice, pretty run down and dirty inside but shiny on the outside with mag wheels and obviously the pride of it’s owner. Lara is an English teacher in St. Petersburg and good friend to Joe and Carolyn. She was so nice to us. She planned a long day of palace hopping culminating with a concert at the Marinsky Theater. The six of us crowded into that car and headed to the Pavlovsk (Pauls) palace–about 20 miles out of town. Almost from the beginning our driver started to complain. We found out that he had spent some time in New York City as a cab driver and that he hated Americans. He was probably hung over from the night before (an endemic in Russia). He may have been one the “Mafia” type thugs that dominate the economy there.

Lara had such trouble with him over money and just about every detail. Like the musicians he was a free-lance driver with no regulations. He was dirty and greasy too. (By the way, it seems like everyone who had an automobile was a free-lance cabby–more on that later). We also found out later that, while our driver pretended not to know English, he probably understood our conversations. He further more made me feel like the ugly rich American. Lara brought along several big plastic containers of Coke, fruit, and biscuits as snacks because places to get food are very rare.

When we got to the palace the driver fought incessantly with Lara. We took the tour and then went to the nearby Catherine Palace. Unfortunately it was closed that day and we could only see the extraordinary blue façade and gardens. All the main tourist places in St. Petersburg were nicely spruced up for the 300 th Anniversary of the city. The careful restoration of churches, palaces and museums is a serious priority of the Russians– thankfully as they are among the largest and most beautiful in the world.

When we got back to the car, our driver was having serious trouble with the engine overheating so we waited a long time for him to get it working (grumbling all the time). The delay meant that we would miss going to the Peterhof, (probably) the most extravagant of the palaces. Finally we were on our way back to the city when our driver (speeding and reckless) hit a curb while cutting a corner too tightly. It resulted in a flat tire and a ruined mag wheel. He was furious! (It would probably be impossible to replace one mag wheel). There did not seem to be any traffic signs, rules or driving etiquette any where. His spare was flat too. We finally got wise and paid him off for the whole day and started to hitchhike back to the city. Our first ride was a small bus absolutely packed with people–it reminded me of the run down busses you see all over rural Mexico. Thank heavens we had Lara with us.

The bus let us off at a fast food place on the outskirts of the city. This vast area was filled with huge soviet era apartment buildings–really run down and filthy slums. We decided the afternoon was shot, we had no transportation and had a little time to kill before dinner and the theater downtown. So were hitched another ride to what could generously be called a shopping center. It was an old converted movie theater that was just gutted and small vendors opened kiosks to sell Russian tourist stuff– Russian dolls, etc. and what seemed like thousands of pirated CDs, etc. We bought a few items and had a snack in a small café. It was here that we were able to talk to Lara about the enormous changes in Russia and her memories of the Soviet era. She was candid. Again we were reminded of our good fortune to have grown up in America.

Soon it was time to get downtown and the only way to go was to hail private cars on a busy street. Most cars are small so we needed two and we had to haggle price with them. The cars got separated and those of us in the car without Lara had a long ride unable to communicate with the driver. We hoped that he would take us to the right place–the famous Marinsky Theater, where the Kirov Opera and Ballet perform–he did. We had made reservations near the theater for dinner in one of those upsacle restaurants that are popping up in the city. The food and service were wonderful–and as expensive as Paris. The restaurant happens to be “the place” where all the dancers, divas and foreign conductors eat after the performances. The walls are covered with signatures and greetings by famous musicians–including Placido Domingo. I signed the wall on my way out.

Then we met Lara’s husband Vladimir and went to a concert at the Marinsky. That night featured the entire National Opera Company from the capital of Kazakhstan. It was like a classical variety show. All members of the resident company were there, singers, dancers and orchestra. They played short opera scenes, dances, solo arias and even featured a virtuoso solo violinist and trumpeter. As a member of the Los Angeles Opera I can only imagine going on tour like that–it would be fun! The Marinsky is smaller than I thought, it was packed and the seats were moveable chairs. As it filled up they just added chairs to the aisles. What would happen in a fire I don’t know! The music was wonderful and the artists world class. Unfortunately my zombie state caught up with me and I spent much of the long concert dozing. One interesting fact was that the price charged to western tourists was about $75 per ticket. Lara got us the local resident price of $8 a seat.

Being close to the Arctic Circle meant that when we came out of the theater at 10:30 it was still very much daylight. Vladimir had his private car to get us back to the ship. This night I slept–the first since leaving Los Angeles 6 days earlier.

The next day we met Vladimir who took us to meet Lara. We had plans to spend the day at the Hermitage. When we got downtown, by the Neva, we saw the long lines and dreaded the wait but she had arranged with a friend, a part-time docent at the museum, to be our guide. The guide was a little older lady who ‘snuck” us in a side door and past all the long lines, She gave us a very personal tour that made it a great experience.

This former Winter Palace of the Tsars is one of the wonders of the world. I have been to many great museums and, with the possible exception of the Louvre and the Vatican, it is the largest and most amazing collection of art I have ever seen. The Russian Tsars lived in unbelievably opulence. The size of things was what most impressed me. Huge statuary, paintings, rooms, chapels, tapestries. For lunch our guide “snuck” us down into the bowels of the museum where there was an employees’ cafeteria (we had to pretend we were not tourists) and had a large meal of “Russian” fare that cost almost nothing. We paid a rather small amount of money to our guides for their special help. But it was a lot of money to them and we were happy to help them a little. They were sincerely nice people and were open and generous with their time. Vladimir got us back to the ship in time for dinner and departure. I gave one of my CDs to the tuba player on the way in!

While there did seem do be a chance for long term success for the new Russia what we saw was an almost lawless society. Rubles were nearly worthless. I can only imagine the suffering in the cold winters. Except for the churches, museums and palaces everything was run down, dirty and crude. I felt pity for the very nice and hard working people and hope they have the stamina to modernize without more violence. Russia has always been a cultural enigma to westerners–and I got to experience it first hand.

Jim Self       6/18/04

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