Most Unusual Cucumber

“The Most Unusual Cucumber Shop” was closed, but through the storefront window and lace curtains I could peer into the shadowy interior. Slightly creepy.

Large specimen jars were poised atop pedestals, and dark forms floated vaguely in the liquid. Slightly sinister. I will never know what lurked in that Helsinki curiosity shop.

A few minutes earlier, I had stepped out of the fishermen’s shop where Ozzy Osbourne’s twin sold me two hand-tied salmon flies for Dan’s birthday gift. But I had to stop at the corner because a military tank was passing on the cobblestone street in front of me. I felt that I’d stepped through the Looking Glass.

img_20180604_163948

Across the street was Finland’s Senate Square, where a patriotic celebration was winding down. One block left on the cobblestone sidewalk and I was again peering in a shop window, this time at a sleek modern bookstore, displaying titles in both English and an indeterminate Nordic language. People inside were browsing the books and merchandise. I needed a new book. (The book I’d purchased in Moscow, Kazuo Ichiguro’s “The Unconsoled”, was living up to the cryptic reviewer sound bites on the back cover: ‘One of the strangest books in memory.’ I’d selected it because the front cover boasted “Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature”.)

Once again, I could not get inside a shop. The big, modern door on the corner opened to a small foyer, but it seemed that a key card was needed to enter further. No bottle labeled “drink me” in sight. Eventually I made my way around the corner and to a larger entrance where university students emerged. Inside, the bookshop occupied just a small corner of The ThinkSpace, a meeting place/lecture hall/internet cafe/accelerator. The bookshop’s English-language titles were mostly classics: Dickens, Twain, Hemingway. I selected The Handmaid’s Tale. Years ago, I’d tried and failed to get interested in this book. I really would have preferred something more light-hearted, but in The ThinkSpace I felt compelled to select “serious” literature, just in case anybody was watching (and besides, The Handmaid’s Tale had been made into a movie and a TV series, so it maybe it will hold my attention after all).

The title that had attracted me from the sidewalk was “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls”.

img_20180605_123426

I opened the cover and was delighted to see that it was just what I’d expected: a collection of one page-stories about girls and women who had made positive contributions to science, music, literature, medicine, art and other spheres. I didn’t buy this hardback book, but I did put it on my mental list of books to get.

One rebel girl who came to mind is Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbert, later known as “Catherine The Great”, the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.

Catherine was a bad-ass. She was a Prussian princess who married into the Romanov family, and was a proponent of the sweeping reforms initiated by Peter the Great. When her stodgy husband inherited the throne he tried to return Russia to old traditions and superstitions, but Catherine could not abide a great step backwards. Her forgettable husband soon died in an ‘accident’ at the hands of Catherine’s lover, and she inherited the throne.

Empress Catherine instituted social reforms, like education for young women and a model for a revised legal system. She sought the counsel of the great thinkers of her day, including Voltaire and Diedrot. She was ambitious militarily, and she expanded her empire. However, her perpetuation of the system of serfdom led to domestic unrest and revolt.

During my stay in St.Peterburg, I enjoyed the company of other intelligent Russian women. Nina was my guide to the city, and all its history and treasures. Her “regular job” is a university professor in the literature department. Her specialty is 17th century English drama. But, I suspect that she could easily qualify as a professor of Russian history. From the moment she picked me up at my hotel, she wove the stories of the Romanov Dynasty with the history of the buildings, monuments, and bridges of the city.

There are not enough superlatives for the city of St. Petersburg, and I can’t hope to describe even a fraction of what I saw. Palace next to palace next to palace. Academies, theatres, cathedrals, conservatories, museums, gardens, canals. Gold, silver, jewels. Heros, artists, scientists, maestros, shipbuilders, ballerinas (and now, futbol stars).

Even my hotel was in a building that was originally a nobleman’s palace. But, it had been repurposed a few times during the past two centuries. The Ministry of Agriculture now occupies one half of the building. The other half was converted to apartments at some time, and a portion of that is now a botique hotel, “Deluxe Hotel”. When I made my reservation, I prioritized location over amenities, and I was just 2 blocks from the important city sites. But, I knew by the bargain price ($100/night) that “Deluxe” was probably a bit of puffery. Luckily, I arrived during daylight. Google Maps directed me to a little alleyway blocked by an old iron gate. The small sign above confirmed that l had arrived at Deluxe Hotel. After stepping through the gate, the only option was a dented metal door. I pressed the button and I was buzzed in by an unseen hand. I had to push hard on the door and it groaned loudly as it reluctantly opened to a dim empty foyer. “Dungeon” was the word that came to mind. Now my only option was up the worn marble stairs. Another locked door. I found the button and was buzzed through, where I was greeted by an accented “hello” from the young front-desk clerk. My room was large and clean, but the window looked out on a dingy yard with a wrecked car. The other hotel guests included foreign tourists and families, and it turned out to be a safe neighborhood with nice restaurants and a park nearby. All in all, it was a safe but medicore hotel in an excellent location and I was glad that I chose it.

The city was full of tourists, and the main sights were packed with tour groups – busloads from the cruise ships. At the Peter & Paul Fortress, a discreet payment to the guard allowed our car inside the restricted parking area, and ahead of the crowd (“a small corruption” said Nina). Later, out in the countryside at the rear door of the Catherine Summer Palace, the queue to enter wrapped around the building and the line wasn’t moving.

But Nina is a good friend of the director of the Summer Palace. Olga met us at the side and escorted us to the FRONT door of the palace, where we made our exclusive entrance.

If you’ve ever imagined the interior of a fairy-tale palace, it probably looked like the Catherine Summer Palace. Grand ballrooms with marble and gold. Dining rooms with crystal, china, parquet floors, chandeliers. Paintings. Sculptures. More gold. Nina slipped us through each crowded hall, and staked out the exact spot in each room for best viewing.

The next morning, we visited the Winter Palace in the heart of St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great had felt that it was too ostentatious for her day-to-day living, so she had a smaller, private quarters added to the side of the palace…her little hermit’s shack. This is now The Hermitage Museum which houses 40,000 pieces of art from masters around the world.

H

Two generations before Catherine, in 1703, at far north and west edge of Russia, Peter of the Romanovs, founded the city that would become the new capital of Russia. It quickly gained fame as a center of science, art, music and immense wealth. Peter achieved his ambition to build a city as splendid as the capitals of western Europe. We visited his summer palace, now known as Peterhof, where he dazzled foreign heads of state. His science academy attracted the brightest and best. I would read some of their names in my visit to the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, four days later.

And I enjoyed the company of another brilliant Russian woman on my last night in St. Petersburg. Natasha, a dear friend of my American friend Irena, picked me up in her car from my hotel and we decided to visit the nearby St Isaac Cathedral, but worried about finding a parking space in this crowded city. Natasha’s warm heart brought us good luck and we slipped into an open parking space on the corner next to the Cathedral. This building is the largest Orthodox Church and has the third largest dome in the world. Later that evening, another parking miracle occurred and we found a space right in front of the famous Mariinsky Theatre where Natasha treated me to a performance of the ballet, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.

The music, ballet, costumes were extraordinary. And we felt like royalty as we sat in the same theatre that hosted emperors in the past (and Vladamir Putin 2 days prior). Thank you Natasha for an unforgettable night!

The next morning, I hefted my backpack and boarded the train to Helsinki, Finland.

Zebras in Moscow

To my friends and family:

l’ve journaled some of my experiences and thoughts during my journey to Spain and Russia, and I’m sharing some here. (One day I will figure out how to set up a blog.) No need to reply, but I will be happy to hear from you.

FYI, I am phasing out my old phone number and I have a new phone number in Spain ±34 XXX XXX XXX and it can receive regular phone calls. I also use this new number for WhatsApp to make internet calls and messages for free. You can get WhatsApp for free if you need to call me.

Love to all!

Dianne

____________________________

May 28, 2018

We stood on a busy street in downtown Moscow looking both directions for a zebra. Marina thought that if we walked towards the corner we might find one.

That was my first Russian word, “zeb-rah”. Its meaning was so obvious. It is the painted white bars on the pavement where pedestrians can safely cross. And it was my opportunity to teach Boris a new English word: “crosswalk”. We both practiced our new vocabulary for the rest of the day.

Boris, a self-taught polyglot-engineer-software developer, is both proud and astounded that at age 60+ he has just landed a new job as a programmer with a prestigious firm in a swanky new office building. And he chuckles that in his first week he has completed the project that his predecessor could not complete in a month. “Maybe I need to work slower”.

On the morning that Boris and his daughter Marina met me to begin my personal tour of Moscow he could barely contain his enthusiasm. After quick kisses hello, he wanted to first tell me the history of the name of the street we were on, and then tell about the monument in the park, and then….(Marina gently nudged him and suggested that we get started to see the important stuff). Okay, two blocks in the direction of the Kremlin, and then a short detour to pop in to a church that Boris likes for it’s history and architecture. But, the street was barred and he was disappointed. By the end of the day, I had seen so many beautiful churches, buildings, fountains, and parks that I’d forgotten about the missed church.

The Kremlin has museums filled with diamonds and gold, but the secret treasure in Moscow is Boris himself and his deep and wide knowledge of history (from the Tartars, through the Napoleonic wars, the Revolution, and into modern times), art, poetry, and architecture. Of course they showed me St. Basil church, the Kremlin and Red Square, the White church, and Bolshoi Theater.

 

 And Boris and Marina retold the history of each, and added their own theories about some. But we also visited the art nouveau house where Gorky lived,

 we saw a KGB building where certain residents mysteriously disappeared, and walked past the TASS news agency headquarters. Marina led us to a park and one of her favorite sculptures “Children are the Victims of Adult Vices” by Mihail Chemiakin. It depicts two children playing, and unaware of the dangers lurking around them

represented by 13 grotesque characters representing “violence”, “indifference”, “irresponsible science”, “drug addiction”, and other adult vices. I think it is one of my favorite sculptures, too.

Marina also has a prestigious job, as a recruiter in the human resources department for a company described as “the Russian Google”. She also speaks multiple languages, and she likes to catch her Dad in his rare English grammar error. She learned English first by watching American TV shows, then studied in school. Now she likes to watch American sci-fi and Netflix.

We rode the metro home both days, but I still don’t have the confidence to try Metro by myself. The signs are in Cyrillic, sometimes with the Latin letters in small text beneath. But that is helpful only if you know which platform to stand on and the name of the stop you want (does Kitai-Gorod sound like “kitaygordov”?). There are nine different metro lines and at some stations you can change to a different line. Boris and Marina tried to convince me that I could easily take the metro to the art museum because it is only one stop from my hotel. “You don’t even need to know the names, just get on the right color line”. Well, that was funny because the 3 of us could not agree if the line we rode was “purple” or “red” or “magenta”.

 

In Seville, the chiming of the cathedral bells lost its charm by the second morning’s pre-dawn summons. On my first morning in Moscow, I grumbled when I heard the muffled sound of church bells. That afternoon, I was on the sidewalk in front of my hotel and the little church across the street was ringing its bells at full volume. But after a minute, I saw that there was a collection of bells of various sizes in the tower, and each bell was swinging independently.

Now I heard that it was actually a little melody! It reminded me of a music box, in life-size. The bells were swinging high in the tower, and I could see a little flash of white. There’s a person up there!

 A woman in a peasant dress and scarf was busily pulling ropes and stepping on levers. A tune flowed from the tower, and then repeated again and again. Her hands flashed quickly. Then suddenly, it was over. As the last note faded, the woman hurried down the steps behind the tower and disappeared.

Today and tomorrow I am on my own in Moscow. From my hotel I can walk to the Kremlin, and I will eat at the Georgian restaurant on my block and try the Georgian wine that Marina recommended. Then I board the train to St. Petersburg.

To Boris and Marina, I say the only other Russian word I know: spasiba!

Seville – week 1

May 20, 2018

Seville, Spain
img_20180629_195221
‘El Giraldillo’ weather vane, replica, Seville.

My 4th floor balcony looks down on the cobbled street where the turistas, with heads bowed to their cell phones, attempt to navigate the maze of narrow twisting calles. But no one is mad, because getting lost in Seville is part of the magic. After a couple of turns around blind corners, the Giralda (the city’s famous bell tower) comes into view and the wanderers instinctively know which direction is “home”.

img_20180629_194511
Giralda Bell tower, Seville Cathedral
My temporary home for six nights is a sunny room in the historic district. From the rooftop terrace, I see church towers too numerous to count. 00013xtr_00013_burst20180517190333On my block is Iglesia San Salvador, which declares its devotion by enthusiastically ringing its bells in the morning and around noon and sometimes in the middle of the night. Soon, the sound of bells echos from every direction. I’m thinking there is a message for me. I say a little prayer of gratitude for all the good in my life.
But secular life dominates, as the many bars and shops on every block attest. Iglesia San Salvador has plazas in front of and behind the church, and cafes and bars fill both plazas. Socialing at the neighborhood cafe until 11pm is customary. On my second night in Seville, I shared a table with honeymooners from Ireland (they’d been living together a long time, so apparently the novelty was past and they were both eager for fresh conversation). In no time I was invited to visit them in Ireland -“sincerely!” It was a fun night and I was happy to have extended dialog in English and learn the difference between a barrister and a solicitor, and hear of the good deeds of the lads in the Irish Navy.
I have also connected with the American Women’s Club in Seville. The “welcoming chairman”, Donna, invited me out for coffee on the first morning and offered lots of helpful advice, including a couple of leads on a long term rental. She is retired from a position as a U.S. university fund-raiser, and has lived here about 1 year.
I attended the Club’s monthly luncheon on Thursday, where I met several other women who speak English (many are not American). I received a warm welcome and many vague invitations to meet. I plan to call them! (Don’t worry…I plan to make plenty of Spanish friends, too)
On Friday afternoon, one of the club members, Karina Carmen Velasco produced a flamenco show for the club. Carmen is a renowned flamenco artist and she had brought amazing artists with her: guitarist, singer, and a rising-star dancer. The performance was spellbinding…we were a small audience (20) in a tiny venue. It was fantastic!
I’ve walked around the Seville historic district several times and seen the exteriors of the Cathedral, El Alcazar, the Arcivo, Plaza DeEspana, and countless chapels, monuments, and modern art too. I’m deliberately waiting to take the interior tours until after I have done some reading/research about them, in order to fully appreciate them. For now, the exteriors are more than enough to keep amazing me. I feel like I’m at a banquet of history and art, and I want to savor every bite.
So, Week 1 has been wonderful. Seville is even more magical than I expected. I hope to secure a long term rental next week before I depart on my 2 week Russian excursion. Then I will be looking forward to my return to Seville on June 9.
For now, my best communication options include email (best for longer dialogs), What’s App at my Spain number +34 XXX XXXXXX for text messages, voice calls, and video calls. Or you can place an international phone call to that number, which will be free for me but possibly expensive for you. Seville is 9 hours ahead of Minden. My Nevada phone is connected for a few more weeks, but I won’t answer calls unless I recognize the caller ID ( it’s political poll season in Nevada).
One day I might get a blog site set up, or a dedicated Facebook page to journal my experiences. But for now, my brain is at its limit for new things, and I already know how to email. You don’t need reply to this email; just know that I’m thinking of you. Please do write me with exciting (or mundane) news from your life, if you’d like.
love to all,
Dianne