I wonder if I'm being downgraded by the Grand Hotel Europe? My suspicions began yesterday, when the Baltika (official beer of the balloon festival) was not replenished in my mini bar. Then, at night, my bed was not turned down and I received no bedtime chocolate on my night stand. This morning, my specially printed International Herald Tribune did not have "Mr Fjelstad, Room 404" printed on every page; instead, it said "Mr Guest, Breakfast." I expressed these concerns to Mike when we shared a table at the breakfast buffet, and he too was puzzled. The crowning moment came later in the day, when I returned from sightseeing and my key card no longer let me into my room.1
Speaking of the Herald Tribune, the 1902 entry here sounds very much like Alf's selections from Steele's Rudimentary Economics. The excerpt is all the more remarkable because it uses the word "thither" ... a term that Mike and I were actually just discussing in some detail during Wednesday's balloon flight. Really!
PARIS: A stylishly dressed young woman committed suicide in a cab. She took the cab giving the address of a tradesman in the faubourg Montmartre. On the way thither she shot herself through the heart with a revolver. A letter was pinned to her corsage with the superscription: "Convey my body to the house of M. ----, faubourg Montmartre." The person indicated was not to be found at the address given. It appears that the young woman killed herself in despair at being abandoned by her lover.
1952: Curious Scottish Bequest
LONDON: A Scotswoman has willed £1,000 ($2,800) to Edinburgh College of Domestic Science to perpetuate Scottish cooking -- especially Haggis. The will of Mrs. Ada Gertrude Shephard provides that income from the £1,000 be used for an annual cookery prize at the college. The prize dish "whenever possible" is to be haggis. A dictionary definition of haggis: pudding made of the heart, liver, lungs, etc. of a sheep or a calf minced with suet, onions and oatmeal, seasoned and boiled in the stomach of the animal.
Meanwhile, in today's IHT news: "A leading Roman Catholic newspaper Friday criticized a cutthroat 'lawsuit culture' in the United States as being partly to blame for the child sex scandal rocking the American Catholic Church." This seems to me a good strategy with a clever target, as lawyers are possibly more reviled than the church's own child molesters. Tip to the Pope: See if you can construct a theory wherein Osama bin Laden and telemarketers are also more responsible for this than your priests.
Of the many notable sights that appear right outside my window, the most visually fetching are the spires of the Church on Spilled Blood. It is located on the bank of a canal, exactly where the People's Will terrorist group set off a bomb and blew up Emperor Alexander II in 1881. Construction of the church began in 1883, and it took 24 years to complete. After its exterior was damaged by German bombs in World War II and its interior was looted and vandalized by the locals during subsequent years, a 27-year restoration project was undertaken in 1970 and completed in 1997. Today, the 7,000 square meters of mosaics that completely cover the walls and ceilings have been brought back to their original, very impressive splendor. Unfortunately, no photography is permitted inside, and so I can't show you the interior. But we were also outside.
The church is also (and more formally) known as "the Church of the Resurrection of Christ." This is borne out iconographically, as can be determined by a tip Alla gave us: In the front of the church, Mary appears on the left of the altar, and Jesus is on the right. The second depiction on the right represents the saint (or whatever) to which the church is dedicated. In this church, that is where you will see Jesus again, scars and all, in full resurrection mode.
From Spilled Blood, we proceeded to the Menshikov Palace. Here, as at some previous sites, we had a guide who spoke in Russian, and Alla translated for us. Alexandr Menshikov was a very close friend of Peter the Great ... indeed, while the official tour guide at the Palace did not explicitly say it, apparently there exist strong suspicions that Alexandr and Peter were something more than "just friends." This palace was built by Menshikov in 1707, and it is one of the city's first buildings. Menshikov himself was governor of St Petersburg, although a few years after Peter's death, he found himself out of favor and exiled. Lenin ultimately decided that the rundown palace should be saved, and it now contains restored items and other period pieces.
In the palace we saw several rooms, many eighteenth century portraits of Menshikovs and others, and other works of art. A minor element in one room especially caught my eye: The inlaid floor conveyed an illusional effect, similar to an M.C. Escher painting, in that the floor did not appear to be flat. Alf noted a large metal structure in the back yard; it turned out to be a crown that was being restored and destined to return to the palace's roof.
We stopped very briefly at St. Nicholas's Cathedral. As with all the churches here, no inside photography was permitted. It would have been hard here in any event, as there was great darkness inside. While the other churches and cathedrals we have visited have seemed largely tourist affairs, there appeared to be actual religious activity going on here. Candles were everywhere, and the smell of smoke and burning paraffin filled the dark air. Outside I was able to take pictures of the cathedral and its separate bell tower, as well as our group ... and others who happened to wander in front of me.
Alla arranged for us to have lunch on board a restaurant boat, the New Island. We were not the first notable people to do this: Photos inside the boat showed several other VIPs who had been on board, including French President Jacques Chirac. Also, most significantly, a photo from just a couple of weeks ago depicted the Bushes and the Putins on board. As far as we could tell, no heads of state were on board with us.
As we sailed along for an hour and a half, we saw many familiar sights along the banks of the river: lighthouses, the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul fortress with the Aurora. Alla also pointed out a city prison housing those who were awaiting trial ... and we saw Putin's presidential yacht.
Tonight we once again headed out to the Catherine Palace. Our prospects for flying were uncertain. While the skies seemed fairly clear, the winds were unstable and forecasts indicated a possibility of thunderstorms. Still, we really wouldn't be able to know unless we were out there at the appropriate time. We would just have to show up and wait for a bit.
Our trip to the site was a bit more eventful than usual, as Ashley misread the color of a traffic light and the local constabulary beckoned him to the curb. "Does anyone in here speak Russian?" he asked. "No," they all responded. "You in trouble."
As it turned out, there was only a 150 rouble ($5) pay-on-the-spot fine involved. This sounded like a good deal; I was tempted to break a law myself. Unfortunately, there is no ticket or other documentation provided, and the absence of a unique souvenir made the effort seem less than worthwhile. I decided to remain lawful. By the way, Stephani, Robin and I were riding in the other Previa, with Dan as our driver, when this happened, and our curbside wait for the completion of Russian justice gave us ample opportunity to recall that fun night back in August 1997 when Dan, as a brand new crew member, collided with a car during a difficult chase in Switzerland. He earned the nickname "Dan the Dent Man" and we never saw him again on that trip. The worst part of that incident: Unlike today's minor travail, Dan had to pay about $500.
Out at the Catherine Palace, a flight looked unlikely. We took some time to walk around the Palace and to see its front side. I captured photos of the Palace, the grounds, Luba and her entourage, and some strangers.3 The only way back into the rear courtyard was through the single gate we had previously used, so we had to walk allthe way around the palace, to the main gate and beyond. When it became clear that there would be no flight, we killed a bit more time and then headed back to the hotel.
It was late when we got back to the hotel - 23:00. While this was not as late as a post-flight arrival, it was just late enough for the hotel's restaurants to be closing. We split up and had room service in our respective rooms. Opting for some local authenticity, I ordered Beef Stroganoff; it was quite good. Robin and Stephani had to complete their packing while they ate: They would be leaving for the airport at 4:30 in the morning.
It was good to get to bed a bit earlier than we usually did ... although most of us also had plans to get up earlier than usual, too.
1 Everything ultimately turned out all right: I was given a new key card that worked; it turned out that Alf had received both his Herald Tribune and mine this morning, and so the hotel had to give me a generic copy; and the Baltika also returned later in the day. Indeed, by nightfall it appeared that full service had been restored to my room.
2 In exchange for taking a picture of their group with their own camera, I asked if I could also take one with mine.
Stephani and Robin left very early in the morning. The rest of us (except Annie, whose flight to Seattle this afternoon would make for a very long day) got up a bit before 6:00 to try for a photo opportunity that had been set up last night. Our plan was to go to Saint Isaac's Square, inflate the balloon, and snap photos like crazy. We figured it would be a pretty sight.
We met downstairs a bit before 6:00, and we headed out to the square. All of the streets were wet, and we wondered if it had rained ... but then we realized that trucks were hosing down the streets and sidewalks. We're not entirely sure why they do this, but apparently it's a tradition. It certainly seemed like a huge project.
St Isaac's Square was wet and nearly deserted. We had come early in the morning primarily to get there ahead of anybody else: Since laying out the balloon takes a great deal of space, we'd have trouble if the hat and fur vendors had already arrived. As soon as we paused, however, a little police car was upon us, and we were instructed to "move along." (At least I assume that was the nature of the instruction delivered through the police car's loudspeaker.) We pulled over to the curb to get out of the way, and the little police car chased us there, too. It nipped at our heels and gave us additional instructions.
One of Gennadi's associates showed up and chatted with the police ... and then he chatted with us. There had apparently been a change in plans. One of the buildings at St Isaac's Square would be the site of a meeting with President Putin and various foreign leaders this morning, and so security had been tightened. We were going to go instead to the Peter & Paul Fortress for our photo opportunity.
We headed off in that direction, and we were able to drive directly onto the island without any paperwork or deliverance of currency. The Baltika airship people were already there and assembling their craft. We took a look around, however, and it really didn't appear that the selected site would offer any interesting photo opportunities. After a chat with Gennadi and some establishing shots to show that we had actually been there this morning, we went back to the hotel ... to bed or to breakfast, depending.
I had really intended to say goodbye to Annie before she left. At the hotel, though, I went back to bed and unexpectedly missed her departure for the airport. I'm going to be on that same flight in a couple of days; I hope I don't sleep through that departure.
The afternoon slipped away, with each of us left to our own devices. After a lunch at the sidewalk café outside the hotel, I sorted photos and did some work on the Saturday journal in the lobby; Mike, who had worked upon our return from P & P, napped; Alf and Watcharee walked around town. Meanwhile, Robin, Stephani, and Annie flew west.
In the evening, we took the balloon back to the Peter and Paul fortress. After our failed morning attempt, Mike found a spot on the other side of the island that was more photogenic and that might be populated (for a more festive atmosphere). We met downstairs a little before 20:00 and flung ourselves into the Previas.
Upon arriving at the waterfront inflation site, we saw that this was indeed a big improvement over the morning venue. We were right across the river from the Winter Palace (the Hermitage), and we could see the Church on Spilled Blood, the dome of St Isaac's, and the lighthouses. Just as we got out, the hydrofoil that we had taken to Peterhof on Friday sped past. There were also a lot of people out enjoying the evening. I noticed a dog that had adopted and was dragging around a pet cardboard box, and I thought how much Stephani would have enjoyed seeing him. By this time, however, she and Robin were drawing near to Florida.
We had various discussions with various people; Alf was given a corkscrew to add to his collection. As we waited to see how the evening's weather developed, we posed for photos against the scenic backdrop, and we watched the local Petersburgers enjoying their lovely waterfront. One of our hosts invited Alf to visit a restaurant owned by his friend, and since we were in no rush, he and Watcharee rode off for a while.
Eventually, Mike decided that the odds of a successful inflation were increasing, and so the crew took out the equipment. Some of the other people on the riverside watched with casual interest; others just continued with their regular pursuits.
After a bit more time, as the air became more stable, the crew pulled the Screwmaids out of their bag and unfurled the envelope on the dusty ground. Then, of course, it was time to pose for more photos. With the actual inflation of the balloon, a crowd began to gather and watch with increasing interest. Some people posed for photos next to the balloon; of course, we were snapping plenty of photos ourselves. Held taut by various ropes and pulleys, the Screwmaids slowly rose and caught the St Petersburg sun.
Throughout the evening, the possibilities for adventure continued to be upgraded. At first, we thought that the equipment might have to remain packed. Then we thought that a quick inflation would be the best that could be accomplished. Now, however, it appeared that tethered "flights"were a possibility.
A recruit was carefully selected from the throng, and she was "volunteered" to be the first passenger. Joined by a few other brave souls, St. Petersburg Passenger No. 1 rose from the ground for a view of her city from a tethered basket.
Many additional flights were conducted, so that all those present were given a chance. It was an extremely festive night, and everyone had a wonderful time while in the air and on the ground. Alf and I were busy with our cameras, and so we skipped the ride, but Watcharee - who had missed both of our flights from the Catherine Palace - did go up on one of the ascents. Thus, out of all the "passengers" who accompanied the Screwmaids to this International St Petersburg Balloon Festival, Watcharee was the only one of us actually to fly in a balloon over the city of St Petersburg!
The sun sank lower as the tethered flights continued, and once the rides were complete, it was time to deflate the balloon and pack it away. Tomorrow morning, it had another appointment with the Russian Customs officials. As the balloon was packed away, Alf and Watcharee chatted with a couple who, remarkably, had also recently visited Bangkok, Nepal, and Chateau d'Oex!
Back at the hotel just before midnight, I ordered Chicken Kiev from room service. Here is the Spilled Blood Church as it appeared outside my window well past midnight, at 00:50:
NEW YORK: A strike has broken out among the Italian laborers employed on the Long Island estate where Mr. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., is building a country house. There is a lake on the ground, which local gossip asserts to be bottomless. The workmen from the neighborhood, who wanted the job themselves, appear to have told such gruesome tales about the lake to the Italians that the latter in a body refused to cleanse the water of the growth which covers some thirty acres of its surface
1927: Resisting European Ways
TEHERAN: Persia is determined not to follow new Turkey in the matter of adopting European fashions, customs and habits. Persian women, who have recently shown an inclination to imitate their Turkish sisters in casting the veil aside and donning European dresses and hats, have been given to understand by the police that this will not be tolerated, at least not in public. Even the schools are hit by these dramatic measures to keep Islamic traditions intact in the country of the Shahs.
This was a very quiet day! The crew went to the Customs Office at the airport, to make sure the balloons could be exported back out of the country tomorrow; the rest of us engaged in various pursuits.
For dinner, we all met at 21:00 in Chopsticks, the hotel's Chinese restaurant. This would be my last meal with our group.
At about 10:30, between the sea bass and the ice cream, Alf decided that he would not return to Bangkok tomorrow. Instead, he will transfer back to France with the crew! He'll travel back across the Russian-Finland border, thence on the return ferry to Stockholm, down through Sweden, Copenhagen and Germany, and ultimately to Beaune for a few days of ballooning in Burgundy. Sounds like a good idea!
A dinner table call to Cindy in Fort Lauderdale moved Alf and Watcharee's plane reservations forward a week, and Mike calculated on the back of an enveleope that everything else could be set up to work properly. That was all there was to it! Therefore, my journal will not be followed by news from Bangkok. Instead, Alf will be doing a "transfer and French ballooning" journal.
The time has flown, and now so must I. This morning I'm heading out to the St Petersburg airport for my flight to Seattle. My first stop is Copenhagen, where because of the two-hour time zone change, I arrive "five minutes" after my Russian departure. After a short layover, I'll continue home on SAS, arriving late this afternoon ... but the equivalent of the wee hours of the morning in western Russia. Annie reported last night that she had a smooth trip on Sunday, and I will be retracing her path, so I'm hopeful that it will be smooth for me as well.
This has been such an amazing trip! We have covered places I had never before visited, and wonderful surprises lined our path throughout the past few weeks. From Bush in Berlin to the long road trip ... from the wonderful ferry to graduation day in Finland ... and ultimately through the Russain border and onward to the amazing St Petersburg ... it's been an experience none of us will ever forget. Of course, the best part of the trip was the great company of the friends in our little troupe. Thanks for everything, Alf!
The new Journal by Alf now begins. Mine is now over ... except that, for the next few days, I will be returning to some previous days and filling in additional details. I still have a lot of digital photos to sort through, and I might add some actual film photos once I get them back from the processor at home. Updates will be noted at the main page of this site, so you'll know when new materials are available.
Goodbye for now ... and have fun following Alf's Impromptu Burgundy Trip! I'll be back in January for another set of Chateau d'Oex adventures.
Next: After Russia