Long Days and White Nights

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

My internal clock’s taking a beating this week. First there was the nine-hour time change between home and Stockholm. Then we jumped ahead another hour in Helsinki, and another hour here, and then tomorrow night we go back an hour as we start circling back. We’ve been changing time zones almost every night since we left home. Plus of course these are the famous White Nights in Russia, when the sun never really sets, so my body’s been mighty confused.

Fortunately, a little adrenaline can go a long way. I was stoked for our visit to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace on the Gulf of Finland. It’s much smaller than the Catherine Palace but we thought it had much more interesting state rooms. The main attraction is not actually the palace itself, but the park around it: 150 fountains, several mini palaces and loads of trees and flowers make for an amazing walk, especially when you have brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the low 20s. Wow.

After a cafeteria lunch of beef stroganoff (we’re really getting into this Russian cuisine), we toured yet another palace, this one belonging to the Yusopov family. At one time the Yusopovs were among the richest families in Russia. They owned five palaces in St. Petersburg alone, plus others throughout Russia, France, Britain and Germany. (Yet it’s still not uncommon for Russians to live in apartments where they have to share tiny kitchens with other families — the gap between rich and poor is not to be believed.) The palace we were in is best known as the place where Rasputin was supposedly murdered, so of course they had wax figures depicting the dirty deed, along with documents trying to clear up the historical mystery. It was pretty interesting.

One more day in Russia…

A Real Russian Experience

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

Now THIS is the way to travel: a driver and guide (in our own private Mercedes) whisking us around town, moving us to the front of most lines and showing us exactly what we asked to see. I arranged this private tour a few months ago when I discovered it was better and actually cheaper than taking the ship’s tours — what an amazing deal.

And what an amazing city! We started at the Catherine Palace, built in the early 18th century for the wife of Peter the Great. Later empresses (including Catherine the Great) expanded and altered the palace, but the blue-and-white facade stayed the same. The interior is famous for the Amber Room (even Chris had heard of it), an entire chamber lined with panels of amber and mirrors. Much of the palace was destroyed in World War II but has since been restored.

After touring the palace, we walked through the surrounding royal park, which is full of canals, lakes and pavilions. At the edge of the park was a small building housing the court carriages used for the coronations of emperors, which naturally I found pretty cool.

I’d like to note for the record that I managed to go five and a half hours without food (and without complaining). For lunch our guide took us to a local restaurant, where I amazed Chris by ordering Russian borscht and potato pancakes, all of which was delicious. (Later in the day I amazed him still further when we were offered free vodka shots and I actually drank one. When in Rome…)

Everything that came after lunch is a bit fuzzy cause we were so exhausted and overloaded with information that we could hardly think straight. The one thing that stands out is our stop at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood — you know, the one that looks like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This one is dedicated to the memory of Alexander II, who was mortally wounded on this spot in 1881 when an anarchist blew up his carriage. It’s one of the best known landmarks in the city.

More opulence awaits us tomorrow…stay tuned..

Fun Times in Finland

Location: Helsinki, Finland

We’re a bit of an oddity on this ship. For one thing, all the other passengers are old enough to be our parents (the first thing our cabin attendant said to me, in her heavy Polish accent, was, “I think you are youngest person on ship, yes?”) Plus, unlike some people we’ve seen, we aren’t used to being waited on hand and foot. In the dining room last night, six different people were involved in getting our meal: one to decide which table we’d be at, one to actually lead us to that table, one to pour our water, one to look at us with disdain when we said we didn’t want wine, one to take our order and another to actually bring the food. Naturally we’ll be tipping all these people at the end of the cruise. Wow.

Nevertheless, we’re having a great time. Our tour today covered the main sights of Helsinki (i.e. churches), and then we drove out to a small town called Porvoo. It’s the second oldest town in Finland, founded in 1364, and it has a well preserved old town with colorful buildings and a quaint wooden bridge. The whole experience was made immeasurably better by the gorgeous sunny weather and our awesome guide, who was a fountain of information on all things Finnish. A great day.

Tomorrow is the first day of our three-day stint in St. Petersburg. Adventure awaits…

Setting Sail

Location: Stockholm, Sweden

“Hurry up and wait” has been the theme today. Wait for the bus to take us to the ship…wait to get our passports checked by security…wait for an hour to check in and get our room key…wait another two hours for the rooms to actually be ready…wait for our luggage to get delivered…ugh. I know that’s just how it goes on embarkation day, but blech.

The good news is, since we’re up with the dawn, we had time to go for a nice walk before boarding the ship. Stockholm is such a walkable city that we haven’t even had to bother with public transit — every major attraction is within about a 30-minute stroll. The streets are clean, the people are friendly and absolutely everyone speaks English, so it’s easy to feel comfortable. Chris commented that he could imagine living here, and I know what he means. We like Sweden.

So this morning we wandered down to see Stockholm’s cathedral. I’m not normally big on seeing churches, but this one is where royal weddings, coronations and baptisms take place, so that piqued my interest. The Crown Princess of Sweden just baptized her little princess here a month ago. Cool.

I must admit, the ship is beautiful. The decor is much classier than any other ship we’ve ever been on. And while the stateroom bathrooms are tiny, the beds are amazingly comfortable. Once all the embarkation stuff was done, the passengers seemed to spread out and it hasn’t been hard to find a good seat in the observation lounge.

We’re about to set sail. On to Helsinki…

A Little Slice of Sweden

Location: Stockholm, Sweden

Get this: today I not only managed to follow a map (Chris said, and I quote, “Excellent job navigating”, which has certainly never been said about me before), but I also demonstrated that I can eat twice as much as my husband. At the breakfast buffet this morning, I had three pieces of toast, some scrambled eggs, half a dozen Swedish meatballs (yum!), an orange, a bowl of yogurt and two glasses of milk. That kept me full for about four hours. Huh.

After breakfast (and a short nap to get over jet lag), we were off to the Vasa Museum, which houses a Swedish naval ship that sank in the harbor 20 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628. The accident was due to faulty design (too top-heavy) plus some human error (water poured in through the gun ports someone forgot to close…nice). Special conditions in the Baltic Sea kept the ship almost perfectly preserved for the 333 years before it was dredged up. Pretty cool.

Next up was the thing I enjoy most anywhere I travel: the royal palace. We walked through the state rooms and the royal apartments, then had a very interesting tour of the palace treasury, which included all the crowns, scepters, and coronation robes of Swedish kings past and present. The current king is just a figurehead whose only real function is to smile for the cameras (he has even less power than the queen of England), but it was still neat to get an inside look at his official residence. I love that kind of thing.

Tomorrow we board our ship. Stay tuned…

Settled in Stockholm

Location: Stockholm, Sweden

We made it (only 27 hours after we left the house!) There were only a couple glitches: we were an hour and a half late leaving London, and the hotel didn’t seem to have our reservation, but that all got straightened out pretty quickly.

I’ve only been here for a couple hours and I love this place already — everything is so clean, efficient and healthy (I picked up yogurt, granola and fruit at the 7-Eleven next to the hotel), everyone speaks English and the people are super friendly. We looked a bit lost coming out of the subway and this really nice lady stopped to show us where to go.
We’re hoping to get a good night’s sleep, beat this jet lag and head out tomorrow to see some of the sights. It seems to be a beautiful city. The weather is gorgeous right now but is supposed to rain tomorrow, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

And So It Begins…

Location: Vancouver airport

This might sound strange, but I honestly didn’t expect to be this relaxed while spending almost six hours sitting around the Vancouver airport. We had an easy time getting here, but then we had to stand in line for almost an hour to check in for our next flight, and I was tired and hungry and grumpy…but then we had a meal, I sent some email and then I watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory on my iPod, so harmony is restored. We still have a nine-hour flight to London and another 2.5 hours after that to Stockholm, but I think I’m ready. This is going to be fun.

Getting underway

Flagged Down: A Story of Canadian Pride

Note: I was going through some old stuff and found this story I wrote back in 1998. It still seems relevant, so I thought I’d share it here.

When I was preparing for a trip to Europe recently, I bought a package of fabric flags. I sewed a big maple leaf on my backpack, another on my jacket, and a small one on my cap (I chose my Montreal Canadiens cap because it was the only one I had that didn’t have an American star emblazoned on it). I even bought small maple leaf stickers and attached them to my luggage.

None of my friends or family questioned why I did this. They all took it for granted that I would want a Canadian flag on everything I owned. It wasn’t until I arrived in England and met my tour group that I began to wonder if I was strange.

No other country seemed to find it necessary to advertise. On my tour, there were people from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa, and you couldn’t find a flag anywhere on them. The three Canadians, on the other hand, had their nationality stamped on everything from fanny packs to makeup kits. In a crowd of tourists, the Canucks were easily identifiable, because they were the only ones wearing any flag at all.

It got to be a big joke among the people on our tour. A girl from Hamilton said we all wore the maple leaf because the airport authorities wouldn’t let us leave the country without one — and only the Canadians realized she was kidding.

One day when I was wearing my cap, my jacket and my backpack (all three flags at once), a guy from South Africa said he couldn’t stand it anymore. He asked me why all Canadians do this. I told him the answer was simple: we didn’t want to be seen as American.

I always thought Canadian culture suffered from a lack of definition. I don’t know anyone who could name a uniquely Canadian food, or type of music, or manner of dress. We watch American television, go to American movies, and listen to American music. There’s an old joke that says inside every Canadian is an American, and to be honest, most of us could pass for a Yankee if we wanted to. I used to believe that being Canadian consisted entirely of trying to prove we weren’t from the States.

But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe we just use anti-Americanism as a shield. Every fourth of July, I join the millions of Canadians who criticize the zealous flag-waving of our southern neighbors. We call them arrogant and self-centered, and we congratulate ourselves on our more laid-back national character. At least, we say, we aren’t like them.

But maybe deep down, we all wish we were.

It’s not that Canadians don’t have national pride. But try getting us to admit it. Unless it involves hockey, most of us don’t get too worked up about our country. A survey last year revealed that only 63 per cent of Canadians polled could recite the first two lines of the national anthem. Thirty-five per cent couldn’t name the three oceans that border the country. It’s almost as if we’re too bored with our own country to bother learning anything about it.

At the end of my European tour, we each passed around an autograph sheet for everyone to sign as a souvenir of our travels together. I expected to get at least one comment about the flags thing, and I did: a girl from New Zealand wrote on my sheet, “It was lovely to meet a proud Canadian.”

There is a lesson in this.

Walking Through History

Location: Naples, Italy

The body casts impressed me the most. Everyone knows the story of Pompeii: how Mt. Vesuvius erupted early one morning in 79 AD and buried the city under 20 feet of volcanic ash. Almost 20,000 people suffocated from volcanic gases, and many of the victims’ skeletons remained intact under all that ash. Archeologists have since added plaster to the bones to make casts of the people who died. We saw a dog, a young boy, a pregnant woman…all frozen in time. More than anything else about the site, the body casts made it all real.

Pompeii is larger than you might think. The site covers 125 acres, and although we walked around for two hours, we barely scratched the surface. We saw entire streets lined with the remains of old shops, including a bakery with its original oven. We saw the gladiator barracks, the forum and city hall, the law courts…and let us not forget the red-light district with its 25 brothels. The buildings in that area actually had carvings of penises on them to lead prospective patrons to the right place. Classy.

There are sites here in Naples I wouldn’t mind seeing, but I have vacation fatigue and all I really want to do this afternoon is relax by the pool. Tomorrow morning we dock back in Civitavecchia and are scheduled to fly out of the Rome airport just after lunch. I hear volcanic ash is causing problems in the Atlantic, but I’m crossing my fingers that our flight to Toronto won’t be affected. Wish us luck!

Under the Sicilian Sun

Location: Trapani, Italy

Rival groups have fought over control of Sicily for centuries, and I can see why. Aside from its strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean, Sicily boasts some amazing natural beauty. Rolling hills and small mountains covered in lush greenery…vineyards everywhere…lemon, orange and olive trees dotting the landscape…medieval towns perched on mountain tops…this is the Sicily of everyone’s imagination. To see it spread before you defies description. Scenic drives normally leave me cold, but even I was captivated by the countryside here.

Our destination today was the Valley of the Temples, a collection of ancient Greek temples strung out on a ridge near Agrigento in southern Sicily. The Greeks founded Agrigento in the 6th century BC, long before the Romans ever came to the island. They then defeated an invading Carthaginian force in 586 BC and decided to build some temples in celebration. Not all have survived, of course; many were plundered for their building material or destroyed by new groups who conquered the area. But some, particularly the Temple of Concord, are very well preserved, largely because they were converted to Christian churches when the Byzantines arrived in the 5th century AD. We walked through the area (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) admiring the remains of four major temples, the ancient city walls that once surrounded Agrigento, and a necropolis that once contained the tombs of local citizens. I’m not much for scenery, but looking at 3,000-year-old rocks is my idea of a good day. Awesome.

The four of us have agreed that we’d like to see the eastern Mediterranean sometime, but we also agreed that we’re glad we’re not doing it all in one trip. This cruise has been great, but we’re getting to the point of being ready to go home. After days of eating too much, drinking too much and sitting on our asses too much, we’ll be lucky to fit into the airplane seats. I’m exhausted from all this leisure.

Naples tomorrow!