Walking Tour, Summer 1999

IN QUEST OF THE PERFECT ... UH ... "THING" ... I GUESS

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Monday, June 28, 1999

Well, it's here. Yes, I have been pretty adept at avoiding it for awhile; but now I am choiceless. That is, if I want to have a journal for this trip I am choiceless. It is inevitably now my turn to write AND take photographs. Paul and Annie are enjoying an earned breather from the last trip ... Stephani won't be on board again until December ... Becky is busy at the Chateau; besides she has tossed the pen at me for the last time, figuratively speaking ... Denise is too busy becoming a CPA; though we hope to lure her out of academia in time for her unveiling at Chateau d'Oex ... At the moment Tilman is fine tuning social issues in Seattle ... Cameron, Ellie, Christopher and Biko are deservedly in youth detention centers. Only I am here.

Not quite. Actually, Linda is with me. Or, she soon will be when we both get to Stockholm. But, it would be terribly unfair of me to foist this job on her without a proper warm-up. Even then it wouldn't be nice. No, you don't have to remind me that she is a veteran of Chateau d'Oex ... her presence in Switzerland less than two years ago was well documented by Paul. But, you see, this trip to Sweden, Finland and Russia is not just a summer break for Linda: it is a quest. And, this quest should not be dampened by dreary diary work. Are you confused? Oh, Dearest Reader, for those of you familiar with the Search for the Holy Grail a simple understanding nod at your computer screen is all we want ... just an acknowledgment that Linda's quest is just as important as that of Monty Python's.

Her quest?

Oh, it will become clear as these chapters unfold.


Tuesday, June 29, 1999

I am booked on today's afternoon British Airways flight from Miami to London. After an hour layover at Gatwick I shall continue on to Stockholm, again on BA. Linda will make the east bound trans-Atlantic journey tomorrow on Lufthansa, but via Frankfurt.

As far as trips go, this one will be unusually short in duration and scope. Just a dozen days and three cities: Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg. The last time that I was in this latter town it was called Leningrad, though some of its older citizens nostalgically referred to it even then by bowing toward Peter the Great ... and, I am sure that many a cloth capped person today wishes it was still named after V. I. Lenin. Whatever, before I properly start this journal let me share with you some of my memories of St. Petersburg, at a time when the Red Flag still had some sway. This all took place during the summer after the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

Click here to see my "girls" at play in Leningrad. These photographs were captured during those first tier halcyon days, long before the responsibilities of middle life burbled into their lobes. Parenthetically, the males in the pictures were their CIA "minders."

And, poke here to look at the apartment at 9/11 Kaznacheiskaja Street. Interestingly,  the Committee For State Security (KGB) took a great interest in this little place. Microphones were not-so-cleverly-disguised as kitchen sponges or were hidden in bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label. Unfortunately for the snoops, either the "ears" got terribly soapy or were "clunked" into glasses.

Enough! On with today!


Gate 12A was four floors below me and slightly off to the left. Parked in front of the gate was BA flight #2294, my vehicle to Gatwick. But, what were all those people doing around my nose cone? A bunch of middle aged men sporting yellow reflective vests were sniffing and probing in the nostril area of my Boeing 777. What was up? A few minutes later the word came over the speaker in the British Airways Terrace Lounge at MIA. It was not a cheery boarding call; instead a Cuban accent explained the delay as having something to do with an onboard weather radar that was acting "funny." Well, my eye took in the wind shears that were dancing merrily around the tarmac and I quickly wished for something damn stronger than my glass of V8. Was this going to be a bad day?

A few hours earlier I had failed to recognize a blatantly inauspicious sign. It was just a fallen palm tree. True, it was blocking my road and the taxi driver had to cut his way through the fronds with a chain saw. But, for me it was just a little inconvenience and not a warning of black clouds to come. Besides, south Florida has had so much rain as of late that plants, shrubs and whole forests were drowning right and left. What worry was one little palm tree in my path?

Back to the nose. Everything suddenly went from grim to grimmer. Just when I thought things were being mended a shower of blue sparks erupted from that little hole in the front of the plane ... you know, the place from where the aerial usually sticks out. Anyway, all the shiny beetle people ran this way and that way ... obviously trying to distance themselves from an exploding airplane. But, just as it started, it ended. It stopped sparking. The men came back to the plane. One of them paternalistically patted the nearest thing: the front wheel strut. And with that, the foreman gave a thumbs up to the pilot. It must now be fixed, I reasoned.

It was! An hour and forty minutes later I was on my way to London. Instead of an airport lounge dinner of greasy crisps and elderly bruised apples, all washed down with luke cold Canada Dry, I was preparing my starched napery for some of Inflight Catering's finest.

After watching the little moving map of the Atlantic Ocean for eight hours, morning came; so did London.


Wednesday, June 30, 1999

Still being under an ongoing flight contract with British Airways I didn't have far to walk to reach my connection: a Finnair code sharing flight to Stockholm. Ah ... but ... what goes on here! The faces at Gate 55G were gloomy. The departure board flashed "WAIT IN LOUNGE."

There was more: the Chinese believe that rats or monkeys or something like that can tell when an earthquake is just around the corner ... I think small children can do the same when it comes to smelling out bent aircraft. The kids were cranky. Snivels and wails all over the place. Sure enough ... our plane had come down with "serious technical problems" ... it had to be "dragged away" ... presumably to some breakers yard in Bangladesh. But, not to worry. A stand-in was waiting just off stage over in Paris. The only problem was to get it here.

Hours later they did.

More hours later and I was in Stockholm.

That's where I am now. At a wonderful hotel on a little lake.

The taxi from ARN (Stockholm's international airport) took about 30 minutes and exactly five hundred and nine Kronor to reach the Grand Hotel Saltsjobaden.

Dear Reader, surely by now you must be wondering why I am writing in the first person singular. Didn't I say that Linda was going to be on this trip? Yes, I did ... and ... yes, she is. As I write this sentence she is aboard Lufthansa's flight 463 from Miami to Frankfurt.

Unless an inauspicious sign has got in her way.


Thursday, July 1, 1999

I know that I am in Sweden! The room service breakfast menu could hardly suggest otherwise.

A choice of:

Hmmm ... I was torn between the "tartar of white fish caviar" and the "marinated salmon." So I ordered both for a 7:00AM to 7:30AM room service knock. I woke up at 8:30AM to no knock and no breakfast. Even the little order card that I had hung out the night before had not been gathered from my door knob. Yikes! What could be done about this? My pre-caffeine thoughts had not yet come up with the possibility that a four star hotel just might have a restaurant that offered a proper sit down breakfast. After an emergency dose of NoDoz that light bulb finally switched on.

But, having spent all of my daring on the room service order, I turned into a Casper Milquetoast when I got to the dining room. "Oh, I'll just have some orange juice and a bran muffin."

By now it was about time for Linda to arrive, assuming that no palm trees had cast a shadow over her day. A call to Lufthansa produced a grayish answer: The flight from Frankfurt was going to arrive three hours late. I settled into the lobby for a good read.

"Hey, Alf, you're here!" I looked up from my book not ten minutes after speaking with Lufthansa. Linda was here. Lufthansa was wrong.

After a nap, lunch and a shower she was ready to see Stockholm.

Eight 7 Kronor "Kupongs" bought us two one way tickets from Saltajobaden to Stockholm. This 25 minute train ride ended at the main railway station. After getting directions from a long legged Swedish blonde (girl) we skirted the Old Town and followed the water by foot to the Grand Hotel Stockholm. This will be our address starting tomorrow. The cozy bar offered up one Vodka martini and one Light Coke. The Coke was for me.

After a long meandering walk about the city we took a taxi back to the Grand Hotel Saltajobaden. It cost 257 Kronors and it took 15 minutes. Linda almost fell asleep in the taxi. So much said for my brilliance as a conversationalist.

The sun was still not yet below the horizon at 10:30PM. And, we were still at the dinner table. The balance of the evening was uneventful.


Friday, July 2, 1999

The morning came at 2:30AM ... well, that's when the sun decided that it was time for people to get up. Not that we felt like following that solar suggestion as we had been asleep for only three hours or so. The curtains suggested that we close them. Done!

Six hours later we were up. Breakfast was knocking at the door and wanting to get in. This was followed by a quick pack-up and then we were out the door and on our way to the next hotel.

After a repeat of yesterday's train ride we met up with the B&R group with whom we shall share airplanes, hotels and meals for the next eight days. Most of them are architects. We are not!

This morning's walk took in parts of the Old Town and a brief view of very little. This was followed by an uneventful lunch at "Pontus on the Green." In the afternoon a ferry took us to the next viewing: Raphael Moneo's "Moderna Museet" and the Architectural museum. Allegedly, we were looking at a builder's "tour de force." The final fillip of the afternoon was a walk about in a round "Pub ic" library; a place that still clings to card catalogs. Yes, the "l" was missing from the building description.

This evening a private launch took us to a dinner of chilled herring and warm potatoes.

After the herring and the potatoes a public launch returned us to the dock near our hotel.

Later Linda and I took a long walk in search of the steamier side of Stockholm. We couldn't find anything even remotely smelling of sin.

We went to bed.


Saturday, July 3, 1999

Oh, Jesus! It didn't happen! Linda just reminded me! Yesterday the world was supposed to come to an end. Honestly! Really! Linda is naturally now quite pissed as she did not pack nearly enough clothes to take her much past today ... Sunday at the latest. So this ancient miscalculation probably means a hasty trip to Stockman's department store when we get to Helsinki tomorrow. Also, Linda is now grumbling sourly that she will inevitably have to suffer her 41st birthday sometime later on down the road.

What am I talking about? Well, I'll tell you.

Way back when he was alive, and not all that gaga, Nostradamus predicted that the world would come to an end on July 2, 1999 ... yes, yesterday! It was going to be some sort of terrible cosmic belch by God that dumped earth and the whole universe down the drain. As you can see, the marked day passed without a rumble and/or a flush. And, a lot of people besides us must be terribly inconvenienced by this non-happening of an anticipated demise.

For starters this B&R trip we are on has to continue.

"Alf, get on with it! I'm on my last clean pair of socks and we have a lot of walking to do before we find a town where the stores stay open on the weekend."

"OK, Linda ... where do you want me to start?"

"How about at the beginning. Where we saw that old barge."

"It was a ship. Fair enough, we'll start there."

The curator of the museum would have you believe that she is like an ancient dowager queen ... albeit, a dried out decayed dead one ... who now lies in the permanent work-in-progress tray of some nautical cosmetologist. Actually, she is more like a new born baby who drowned in the family cesspool while the parents were tending the barbecue grill on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Whatever, she is the Vasa: a great big wooden boat that spent a few hundred years buried in the mud until a right thinking king found the money to hoist her onto land.

The maiden voyage of the Vasa lasted just minutes and covered just inches. But for the want of a scant 150 tons of ballast a slight breeze easily tipped her gunwales under the waves and she promptly filled with water and sank. The crowd that gathered to watch her exit from the dock were obviously treated to far more than what they had expected. Though hundreds of people saw the spot to which bubbles, stuff and people burbled to the surface, there was no hope back then of roping the boat out of the water. And after the flotsam stopped marking the spot it was not long before the people of Stockholm found far better things to think about. In short the ship was lost once ... then "lost" again.

After paying our final respects to the Vasa, Linda and I religiously followed the instructions of our leaders. For the next two hours we walked straight, turned right, bore left, climbed up, went down, angled over, passed by and otherwise navigated the architectural minutiae of Stockholm. Miles of sidewalks finally ended at the brick building where each year the Nobel Prizes (except the Peace one) are awarded to the deserving. Incidentally, a thoughtful in-house gift shop even sells CD's of Nobel Prize Ceremony Music; presumably marketed to "also-rans" who can then pretend, in the comfort of their own living rooms, that they are the ones entitled to the interest earned on the profits made from decades of sales of dynamite.


Sunday, July 4, 1999

Finnair got us here in 45 minutes.

We are now in Helsinki. Linda and I have a lovely period suite at the Hotel Torni ... incidentally, this place has quite a curious history to it. It was designed in the late 1920's by the architectural firm of Jung & Jung. When it opened in 1931 it was the first "sky-scraper" in Finland and it boasted 100 rooms and 40 "en-suite" bathrooms. But the plumbing and the number of rooms was not what made this place "interesting." The paper bed sheets and the spies gave the hotel its colorful place in hospitality history. The war produced both. The sheets were "harvested" from Finnish forests while the spies were imported from the Soviet Union and Great Britain. After the war the Soviets took full possession of the building. They were not ideal tenants; when they abandoned the place in 1947 the insurance company that was responsible for damages took a long look at what the Soviets had left behind and declined further coverage. The 50's, 60's and 70's were sad times for the property. It wasn't until the 80's that a fresh transfusion brought the hotel up to world class eccentric expectations.

So much for where we plan to sleep for the next couple of nights ... this is what architectural bits we were supposed to see today:

We finished the day with a high proportion of check marks ... though some were checked with a light pencil.


Monday, July 5, 1999

And, for our last full day in Helsinki the menu read:

We cleaned our plates. Since we were in school we had little choice in passing up dishes.


Tuesday, July 6, 1999

Today we are scheduled to fly to St. Petersburg. Since Russia does not host any AOL phone nodes this may be my last entry until I return to the USA.


It won't be. I can log on via the Ukraine.

We landed at LED (why not SPG, now that Lenin has been evicted as the prime tenant?) 35 minutes after leaving Helsinki. Curiously, all Finnair flights (in Business Class, at least) feel compelled to serve in-flight meals regardless of how short the duration of the flight. I suppose it has something to do with justifying the additional cost of the ticket. This, however, does require the flight attendants to hover directly over the diners, as the meal is almost simultaneously served and whisked away.

Old Russian customs die with difficulty. Though the distance from the plane to the luggage carousel could be managed in a crawl in less than five minutes, the suitcases made the same trip in about the time that AY#165 could have made the return journey to Helsinki; plus, with time for one more bounce back here to St. Petersburg. But, just as we were about ready to search out the lost luggage window things went right, without a warning. Russia, like the old USSR, is a place without explanations: things just happen or they don't happen. But, it is better than in the old Soviet days when things were either compulsory OR forbidden.

After exiting the airport our bus was aimed toward the Pavlovsk Hills: the once stationary front line of the Nazi army during the 900 plus day long siege of Leningrad. However, today the hills were the bucolic setting for our "themed" Russian lunch at Podvoriye Restaurant. Moldavian wines and Russian vodka were the theme drinks. Borsch, brown bread, pickled vegetables and cabbage wrapped lamb provided the theme solids. But, abruptly passing on the theme coffee, we pushed back our chairs and bolted past the theme musicians who were still midstream in their theme balalaika tune. Yes, our B&R clock had ticked deep into the time reserved for the next architectural wonder.

This proved to be Pavlovsk Palace: a mother's gift to her hated son. After the poor kid suffered a choking incident the place was empty for a bit before being leased out long term:

"Lg.grdns/circ.drive/lawn.fixt./36lvg.rms/1bd.rm/0bath"

Much later, in the early 1940's, the German tenants left the place in a God awful mess. Today's owners are permanently strapped for cash so the property now welcomes day guests. Years of these gate receipts have allowed the "heirs" to restore the house to Czarist standards.

But, to digress. Apparently Paul's mother was also very fond of the neighborhood. Though rather uncomfortably close for Paul's liking, Catherine had the builders throw up a little something just down the road where she could entertain guests and at the same time keep an eye on what was coming and going over at Paul's place. Sadly, this attempt at maternal supervision didn't keep the embalmers from Paul's door.

Speaking of fine properties, the Grand Hotel Europe is our home for the next three nights. Since its complete renovation and restoration during the early years of the decade it has been a leading edge property for the Kempinski Group. But, just 30 minutes after entering our room (#216) we were in a Mercedes on the way to the Mariinsky Ballet Theater to see a Kirov performance of La Sylphide. It was a tale of failed love.

Rather than return to the Grand Hotel Europe right after the ballet, Linda and I walked over to 9/11 KAZNACHEISKAJA STREET. After taking a few photographs of the changed apartment facade and after banging on the window in an unfruitful attempt to gain the attention of the occupants, we continued on to the Astoria Hotel. We had a wonderful dinner in the Winter Garden restaurant. In its pre-renovated state this is the room where my daughters and their CIA "minders" danced their hearts away in the mid-1980's.


Wednesday, July 7, 1999

We slept in.

We had coffee.

We had lunch.

We walked by ourselves wherever we wanted.

We sat in the park.

We boated on the River Neva.

We napped.

We waited for our "minders".

We had time to read.

We saw IT about the same time. IT seemed to explain why we were still alive; though IT certainly did not offer Linda any solace with respect to her upcoming 41st birthday. Nor was IT helpful on the dirty clothes problem: that one we had already sorted out at Stockman's a few days ago. Anyway, this big IT that we saw was quietly tucked into the lower right hand corner of page 7 in yesterday's edition of the International Herald Tribune. I rarely even glance at the LETTERS TO THE EDITOR part of the paper; but, today God must have pulled my eye to the "No, No, Nostradamus" leader for some unknown reason. So what was this IT?

Regarding ‘Time for Nostradamus to Put Up or Shut Up' (Features, July 2):

As a matter of historical fact, during the lifetime of Nostradamus, the calendar year began on March 1, not on January 1, as now. This means that his prophesy of doom for the seventh month will occur in September and not in July as is commonly believed.

Don Brown,
London

How comforting! This reassuring letter should give hope to even the most keen procrastinators. It promises more than enough time to budget all assets and obligations so that they can be timed out with very little waste of unused tangibles and intangibles.

Of course, the biggest plus to come out of God's rescheduled final act is that the Y2K problem is no longer a problem for any of us. Assuming that the predicted "end" is sufficiently cataclysmic to guarantee that there are no ticking clocks left behind.


Thursday, July 8, 1999

As a helpful service to its male readers The St. Petersburg Times provides a handy listing in the classified section of its biweekly newspaper. For men who never tire of the beauty of Russian women, many inches of column space are devoted to the offerings of various Russian marriage agencies. Though there is a wide range of addresses to choose from, all of these agencies seem to offer the same product description: "hundreds of beautiful single Russian women."  Some of them go further and claim that their women are also "intelligent," "educated," "family-oriented" and/or "marriage-minded." A few ads even claim "sincerity" as a marketable plus.

For openers, the curious are invited to log on at http://www.matchmaking-dating.com. This URL does suggest that something short of full scale marriage is also available.

But, Dear Reader, I have digressed too much into whimsical thinking. Please, let me move us back into more mainstream Russian culture.

Forty-one minutes by hydrofoil and we were at Peterhof. We started the journey from the quay just across the road from the Hermitage. Two and a half hours later we walked through the Chinese Pavilion near Oranienbaum. After an alfresco lunch we bussed back to St. Petersburg for a tour of St. Isaac's Cathedral. So much for our Russian cultural day.

Tonight B&R scheduled a final banquet at the Yusupov Palace. Yes, it was in this very palace where "mad-monk" Rasputin also had his final St. Petersburg meal. Admittedly, Rasputin's last nibbles were more final than ours. Unfortunately for him, both his cake and wine were intentionally laced with a generous dose of strychnine or some other nasty additive. Interestingly, it was not the poison that killed Rasputin; it seems that his debauched body could easily tolerate a wide range of toxic ingredients ... it took several after-dinner rounds from Prince Felix's revolver to totally banish the holy man from the Czar's list of confidants. Even then, the dinner hosts, to be doubly safe, dumped his body in the icy cold Neva River.

Our own Yusupov meal was Imperial Russia all the way: Vodka, caviar, blinis, Champagne and chocolate. It started at 8PM and finished four hours later. And, at midnight the sky was still alight from the sun.


Friday, July 9, 1999

The sky was still alight when Linda and I got out of bed ... just four hours after finishing our last night's dinner.

Our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt left St. Petersburg a few minutes before 7AM. Eighteen hours after we checked out of the Grand Hotel Europe our Lufthansa #462 landed at Miami International Airport.

"Wait! Wait! Wait!…..what about this quest thing? What was Linda looking for? What's this trip all about?"

Fair questions you ask!

We don't know.

Next up: CCCC Meeting in France


Interesting Sweden Links:

Global Visitor's Guide to Sweden

The Sweden Information Smorgasbord

Stockholm Rival

Welcome to the Vasa Museum

Living Architecture: Scandinavian Design

Interesting Helsinki Links:

Museum of Contemporary Art

Helsinki City Art Museum

Interesting St. Petersburg Links:

The Grand Hotel Europe

Rocco Forte's RF Hotel Group

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