A brief (I hope) hitch in the trip

We awoke 15 minutes earlier than usual to have our checked luggage out the door at 6:45 for departure to Shanghai.  We managed to get breakfast in by opening the dining room 5 minutes early and choking down some food before being in the cab at 7:15. Despite my concerns about traffic we walked into the terminal at 8:15 two hours before scheduled departure,  whew. But wait what are these extra passes we have been handed? Complimentary meals?  Uh oh. The flight is delayed 3 hours and 40 minutes.  We were not planning on using the business class lounge here,  but now we will have plenty of time to enjoy the luxury of waiting in relative comfort.  Of course we will arrive in Shanghai at something like 2:40 AM if we actually take off at 2 PM. More news on that as we experience the joys of travel.

Thinking about 5 countries and 7 cities over the 22 days so far.  This area like so many others has been fought over,  conquered and freed from conquerors so often in the last century it is hard to grasp what the people have lived through.  In the USA we have had one bloody internecine war in our history since independence and that was 150 years ago.  The most recent change in governance in this region was 1991! That was when the Baltic nations became independent from USSR for the first time since 1941 (and the USSR ceased to exist). These are people for whom the only choice was rule by Nazis or Soviet Union who ever was in control at the moment.  Hobson’s choice which is to say no choice at all,  both sides slaughtered or deported those they saw as dissidents. Russia is finding itself too as a much smaller country,  missing Ukraine which is comparable in size to Texas and is the second biggest country in Europe after European Russia.  Each of the Baltic States are best compared to our small states,  NJ,  Connecticut,  etc. Their population of about 1,000,000 each consists of  one third pensioners and about one third employed.  This is not a good population base on which to build an economy especially as there is significant “brain drain” from each of them as the young graduate from very good inexpensive universities and head out to find satisfactory employment elsewhere.  For many of us the Baltic States did not exist at all as we read about world politics through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

As we prepare to head to China which has yet to really break the bonds of totalitarian rule,  I wonder what the future will be as Russia continues to squeeze the Baltic nations to prevent their deepening involvement with the EU and NATO.  This is playing out today.  Our course will continue to take us to killing fields. We may be less emotionally pained as these are not our close family, but nonetheless they are family of man.  As we sat as a group over the last several days I wondered where we might go in our travels to not find a place of pain.  Carol and I concluded that the nature of humans is such that there is no such place.  The US may not have recent history,  but certainly our ancestor’s treatment of the natives has not been without death and deportation, nor has our northern neighbor Canada’s history been clean on that regard. 

I will continue to revel in the joy of travel and accept that amid the beauty and grandeur that we see there will be reminders of pain and savagery. 

We sat and talked with Yechiel this morning (for us) and we were able to see each other as we spoke across 11 time zones using Google hangouts on my tablet.  This was a dream at the 1964 World’s Fair when we were newlyweds and today it is essentially cost free. 

The grand spaces in Moscow,  Red Square and the Victory Park are so huge as to be daunting and yet we look forward to seeing  Tianimen Square which is said to dwarf them.  The beauty of the gold onion domes of Moscow (candles to G-d) make it truly look like a fairy tale invention and the ancient places we visited all along the way are with me in mind’s eye and in digital images which are too many to share or even sort through as we add new ones each day.

I ramble because I am trying to record impressions not necessarily a coherent story.  Please forgive my wandering from subject to subject,  maybe someday I’ll edit this blog,  somehow I doubt it.

Sunny and Bright in Moscow

Or Moscow in two and a half days on a dead run.

We were met at the airport by Lara who escorted us by mini van to our hotel where we went directly to lunch without passing “go” and collecting $200. After lunch we went to our rooms to find the luggage waiting and enough time to figure out how to operate the safe and freshen up for our tour of Red Square and GUM the major department store that has stood on one edge of the square for 120 years.  We got yelled at for being late coming down from our rooms as there was no place to park the mini van and he was tying up traffic illegally while waiting,  as if anything could make this traffic worse.  Dinner was not included and four of us set out up the street to a Scottish (!) Restaurant.  It was quite good and we enjoyed ourselves.  I couldn’t bring myself to order Scotch so I had vodka deeming it appropriate in Moscow even in a Scottish restaurant.

Tuesday, today? We dressed with as many layers as we could fit against extended time in 30 F temperatures for extended walking in unsheltered park areas. We toured a Midtown Cemetery where,  Krushchev, Yeltsin,   Shostakovich,   Rostropovich, Mikoyan (that’s a history test) and many other luminaries,  political,  military and arts are buried.  We visited Victory Park (WW II) which seems to extend forever,  there is a fountain for every day of the war.  Finally we spent a long time in an art gallery dedicated to Russian art, Tretyakov Gallery, from the days of icons to just before the war.  After a tour ofthe Moscow subway, we returned to our hotel to thaw out. Later we got 6 of us together for dinner out at an “oriental” restaurant.  The menu ranged from Turkish to far Eastern and it was very enjoyable.  It would have been more so without the hookah pipes at nearby tables.

I have noted that we are a well oiled tour group.  We managed to stay together on the subway through rush hour and then find our way from the Metro stop to the hotel after Lara dropped us at the nearest stop.

In the morning we tour the Kremlin grounds.  It will be cold!  After lunch we return to the hotel to pack and prepare for a final farewell dinner.  We fly on the following morning to Shanghai to join a new group and begin again.

Gray and chilly followed by sunlight

We boarded the bus in Tallinn in a chilly drizzle and it didn’t improve for 9 hours as we drove to St Petersburg.  Border crossing formalities in Narva were a bit nerve wracking more because the place looked like a scene out of a bad novel,  two 17th century fortresses facing each other across the river Narva and stone faced Russian boarder guards scrutinizing our documents not once,  not twice but three times.  Our initial impressions of Russia and St Petersburg were colored by the weather and exhaustion.

We awoke today to a forecast of mixed weather,  rain,  snow and sunshine.  During our two hour morning city tour we experienced all of that more then once,  we’ll it didn’t snow until later in the day.  Our guide,  Ivan, told us not to complain about the fact the sun was in the wrong place for our photo stops.  They only get 60 days with sun a year.  You can see great pictures of St Petersburg by using Google,  they will be far better than mine since Carol and I are shooting on the run and mostly into the sun.

After a group lunch we donned head sets so Ivan could talk to us in The Hermitage without shouting and disturbing everyone else,  this is required for groups of 6 or more.  Over 3 and a half hours we walked through every major room on the second floor (of 3) we had wonderful explanations of key pieces of art and building design.  Then we were turned loose with 30 minutes to run through the French Impressionists on the 3rd floor.  My back hurts,  my brain is overloaded and in an hour we will be attending a folk dance event.  We had hoped for Kirov Ballet,  but now I think folk dance will be easier to absorb,  especially as we saw a reasonable regional production of Swan Lake two nights ago in Tallinn. 

Brief impression of the Hermitage; it is hard to believe I had the chance to see with my own eyes, however briefly,  so many works of art that were like old friends from books and slides going back to when my parents collected books of prints and a certain highschool teacher made us learn to recognize them over 50 years ago. The buildings are immense, gaudy and grand. Every detail from the floor to the ceiling demands study.  As I waited for Carol outside the ladies room I noted the wall sconces were labeled Versace, couldn’t be, could it?  Again,  I took pictures,  so what.  What is online is far superior, search for Hermitage.

In the morning we continue the city tour and after lunch we go to Catherine’s Palace for more art and the Amber Room. After a fairwell dinner we will part company with our guide,  Baiba, and four of our crew. We continue on to Moscow as a well oiled travel crew of eight by air for 3 days.

And it continues

Our first full day in Riga started with a chilly walk through Old Town and a tour of Art Nuvo architecture.  We visited the major towers in the Old Town after walking through The Park across the street from our hotel,  Europa Royale. Our God included the Independence Monument, erected to commemorate independence from Russia after WW I! We passed by the Opera House and crossed the Bridge of Locks where lovers and newly weds fasten padlocks engraved with their names before tossing the key in the canal (this sounds familiar).  The preserved and carefully restored Old Town is grand with a surplus of restaurants and churches.  After 3 hours we entered a warm lovely restaurant for an included lunch after such we met our bus for a drive to the Art Nuvo district and a tour of an apartment in one of the buildings such had been the home of one of the master architects of the area and is now a museum. 

We arranged with one partner to be dropped near the synagogue in Old Town and and after some serious navigating we found ourselves at the locked gate.  šŸ™
We returned the next day to find the price of entry was 2 Lat (about $4 each) and peering through the curtains we decided it wasn’t necessary to go any further.

Monday the 14th, started off far more grim. We stopped first are the site of the Great Choral Synagogue,  which is now an open Plaza with reconstructed broken walls and a commemorative plaque to the non Jewish heros who helped some survive.  On from there to Silispils Camp where 632 children died of hunger and cold and some 12,000 were slaughtered (according to Baiba that number is open to interpretation both higher and lower). After walking the Memorial grounds to the sound of a distant heart beat emanating from a black monument to the children we regrouped on the bus to stop at Rumpulus woods, the site of one of the first machine gun slaughters which over two non consecutive days took 24,000 lives in 1941, most from the Riga ghetto but also 1,000 Germen Jews brought in to be killed.

Finally we are done for the day with horror and following a happy stop (bathroom break) in a mall we were dropped off at the market which is housed in four Zeppelin hangars,  which will give some clue to the size of the market.  After our tour we had free time and we joined with John and Suzanne to buy food to make up our lunch and something “unusual” to present to the group tonight.  We found a dicon radish and salsa. We found a patch of stone pavement enclosed in a some wall behind a church to make our lunch stop sitting on the ground leaning on the wall in the sun.  As we walked towards the hotel we stopped in a coffee shop to conclude the meal and the experience.

After an interesting presentation and Q&A with a professor of political science from the University we got out the “unusual items” we had all chosen in the market and sampled and snacked on them.  Satisfied I went off to sauna. Afterwords I joined Carol in the bar and had a beer while she had salad and wine.  Today was a transit day and we left Riga for Tallinn. We stopped at yet another Castle in Cecis Latvia where we climbed the interior spiral stairs by the candlelight after bowling with wooden bowling balls on a not very smooth out door Lane.  The Radisson in Tallinn is very nice and modern.

Lithuania on to Riga

From downer to upper and the emotional roller coaster continues. Our first day in Vilnius had us climbing to the highest point in the area to the last remaining defensive tower of the fortifications dating to the 14th century.  From there we could survey all of Vilnius.  We prepared ourselves for the strenuous climb with a highly recommended stop at the Chocolate shop for a chocolate drink.  This is not some diluted drink,  it is pure chocolate (except for the few who elected to dilute it with whole milk) served warm requiring a spoon to consume it.

At the end of the day we met the 6 people who were just joining us.  The next day, our tour included a stop at a museum built in the former KGB headquarters.  Richard, our guide for this tour, drove home the brutality that had happened in that place under the KGB and a relatively brief  stay by the SS during their occupation of this area of Lithuania.  After touring the cells we concluded in the very secret execution chamber with a horrifying video shot in the chamber. Richard was close to tears as he concluded his presentation about this horror and one of our party asked to be escorted out of the building. 

From there we walked to a cafe where the top aid to the prime minister for internal affairs came to address is about status of Lithuania with regard to economics and social issues.  The former was colored by Russia’s decision to declair Lithuania’s milk unfit for importation in the face of the Euro Markets continuing acceptance of it.  This is a ploy to attack the likely move of Ukraine into the Euro market. Go figure!

The next day we mixed together a vist to a reconstructed Lithuanian farm village with the story of a deportee under Soviet control before the Nazis seized control of the area.  This 84 year old women had been transported by cattlecar to Irkutsk over the period of a month and then 2000 kilometers North to a piece of land on the northern coast north of the artic circle to survive with the summer clothes on her back to drag logs out of the forest to the shore. Survive she did,  and a feisty lady Irena is.

I have skipped over much including lunch in a farm house in a remote village,  a trip the length of the Coronian Spit almost to the border of Russian territory,  hunting for and finding amber on the beach and learning how to recognize amber and how to work it. Also omitted is a long walk in Klaipaeda just to stretch the legs. 

Today was a long driving day with a stop at the “Hill of Crosses” it literally bristles with well over 200,000 crosses of all sizes.  There seems to be no good reason for this phenomenon other than it is a high point near a monastery,  however a special roadside stop had been built to make tourist visits easy.  One could buy crosses from finger size to 6 feet tall in the shop at the foot of the Hill.  Needless to say we didn’t. The last stop off the day was at the huge Rundale Palace which we are assured is just a taste of what’s to come in St Petersburg.

Thinking About Our time in Ukraine

The sites we saw in Kiev awakened memories of stories learned many years ago. These memories are not altogether conguent with the people we see today and create quite a conflict for me. We met a people in  the flush of new found independence from their Soviet masters. Although this independence was gained in 1991, 22 years ago, there has not been time for all the habits of being soviets to have passed from the older generations who still play an active role in government.  Witness the imprisonment for Timoshenko for crimes related to keeping gas flowing from Russia for the winter while she was prime minister.  There are ethnic Russians who want to rejoin Mother Russia and and there are many Ukrainians who think the future tied to Russia is better than that tied to the West.  This tension is palpable when talking to people about local politics,  something we were encouraged to do when we found an English speaker.

As we walked through a square Tania pointed out a statue of a Cossak on horseback who was a defender of the state.  All I could see was a murderer of Jews.  We talked about how the Cossaks were feared by the ordinary people, and all I could think of was how much more so by the Jews.  We toured several Ukrainian Orthodox churches which have been rebuilt more glorious than before the Soviet takeover and destruction.  I saw houses where hatred of the other was condoned if not taught.  I suspect my paranoia is showing. But somehow this was not always a happy home for our ancestors.

In 1932-33 over a million Ukranians starved to death when the  collectivization of successful private farms resulted in two years of crop failures from attempting to follow a government plan and orders ignored good farming practice.  Thinking more about Chernobyle, which is yet another blood letting on Ukrainian soil imposed by the Soviets and full of secrets  which made the initial disaster even worse by hiding the nature and cause of the accident and denying its ramifications.  How much blood can a land absorb?  Why is this piece of land among the bloodiest? Why do I get shivers up my spine when I see a Cossak being honored as a warrior?

As we neared the end of our stay in Kiev, we got to visit a synagogue not far from our hotel.  I do not know its history. We walked in, 8 of us,  three Jews and 5 whose experience of Judaism was very limited. As we entered, the small congregation was nearing the end of afternoon service,  Ma’ariv and we listened as several men chanted Kadesh.  Carol lead the women to the balcony and I took the men onto the main floor.  They were short of yarmulkes, so I let the guests used the offered yarmukes and I merely kept my hat on,  indicating to the gabbai that as a Jew my head was covered and he merely nodded.  Carol and I used the time to explain the ritual and the nature of the worship they were witnessing.  It was enlightening for all.

And so we move on to Vilnius in Lithuania to find more blushed and horrors along with smiling people and a neat old town,  more in my next post.
I am posting as we pack to move on again.

Day 4 – Only Two Stops

Today was a relaxed late start with the bus leaving at 9:30. Breakfast didn’t start until 8. We had signed up for an optional “tour” of the Chernobyle Museum,  located in Kiev at an old firehouse 90 kilometers South of the reactor.  The second stop on the “tour” is Babi Yar followed by lunch. 

The guide at the museum spoke through Baiba as translator.  She walked us through the history of the disaster 27 years ago.  Just as a reminder,  the number 4 reactor at Chernobyle experienced an explosion that blew the roof off of the core and a subsequent fire.  This placed reactor number 3 which is adjacent in immediate risk. The cloud of radiation from the initial explosion blanketed northern Europe then spread South and eventually circled the earth 3 times dropping radioactive rain as it went.  We stood in a room with the equipment used by the “mitigators” as they sought to put out the fire and clean up the roof of number 3. This was not the actual equipment since all of that has been buried at the site. 

We learned once again about the horrifying aftermath of the radiation and the abandonment of towns and villages within a 30 kilometer radius.  The people displaced,  the lies to the world and their own people about the nature and severity of the accident. We also learned that the exclusion zone may need to be maintained for 3,500 years!  There is also a lot of information about Fukashima and the stairway is lined with fish pennants hung by Japanese to bring luck to their families.  They have a lot in common.

After being overwhelmed with the reminder s of nuclear disaster,  we went into a conference room and we were introduced to an operator from Chernobyle who was on the next shift after the explosion.  He and his team entered the devastated control room with radiation levels 1000 times higher than normal to supply water to cool what was left,  to recover the bodies of their mates, and to prevent further damage from a huge oil tank that was in danger of catching fire and a “balloon” of hydrogen similarly at risk.  The four members of the team that went to activate the emergency drain systems died within two weeks of radiation exposure.  Our man discovered a radiation suntan all over his body and stuffed classic radiation exposure symptoms.  This was confirmed by John from our party who is a retired nuclear medicine doctor.  I questioned, in disbelief,  whether he understood the risk he was facing and his comment was “we knew we were not making toys for kids”.  Baiba, our guide, confirmed that he had his degree from the most highly rated Soviet Institue of Nuclear Energy and is trained to be a constructor.  He left nuclear energy to become a journalist and retired from that to take up painting and spreading the memory of what happened and telling the stories that were forbidden until Ukrainian independence in 1991.  I don’t even know how to think about meeting such a man.

As we recovered from this  “learning and discovery”, as OAT calls such an experience, the bus took us to the site of another notorious slaughter, the killing grounds called Babi Yar.  Most of the territory had been built over by the Soviets. A Metro Station sits atop the actual killing field,  it is believed.  The Menorah Memorial sits atop a hill overlooking a ravine next to one that may have been the actual burial grounds.  A TV tower dominates the height and apartments adorn the grounds of the nearby concentration camp.  It is all very disturbing especially the memorials scattered hear and there with little connection to any actual history.  They have tried to blot it out,  but like Amalek, whom we are required to forget,  the requirement to forget enhances the memory.

Please, if the pictures do not appear, click on the links in the text to see them.  This process is a work in progress.  I’ll get it right one day.

Day 3 First Day – addendum

I was so tired when I wrote last night I left out some interesting details. 

The Opera was sung in the original Italian and there were superscipts to help those who did not know the libretto,  in Ukrainian.  Not being Opera buffs, I had looked up the plot summary before going.  Good thing,  otherwise we might have been very lost.

We had no time for dinner as the curtain was at 7! We stopped at a mini mart across from the hotel and bought crackers and enough cheese to satisfy us.  We ate these on padded velvet benches in the cloak room before going to our seats.  The audience ranged in age from very young to some elderly with what seemed to be all ages in between.  Also the economic spread seemed quite broad as well judging by the variety of dress we saw.

One of the buildings we saw is Chimera House.  It is built on the side of a cliff with the back being 5 stories and the front only 3.  The roof line and facades are detailed with fantastical creatures out of cement.  It is really visible from a long way off and directly across the street from the Presidential Palace.

Day 3 First Day

Just to set the record straight,  Days 1 & 2 were travel and arrival days not much touring, just a short walk to dinner.  So Day 3 is indeed the first real touring day.   We walked up and down Kiev’s hills for 6 hours in chill winds.  We walked by the Golden Gate of Kiev,  Sofia Church,  St Michaels and St Andrews Church at the top of St Andrews Decent, a 750 meter road with a 10% grade.  At the bottom was a lovely Ukrainian Lunch including hot borscht and other vegetarian delicacies.  Speaking of food the Premier Hotel breakfast is in a class with fine Israeli breakfasts.

During the day we learned that the opera Norma was playing at the Opera House 7 minutes walk from the hotel. We could no resist the temptation.  With one other member of our tour and our guide we walked to the box office where Baiba helped us purchase 3 tickets in a first level box for 500 local currency which I can neither spell nor pronounce. The exchange rate is about 8 to $1. So our incredible box cost a little more than $60. We were adjacent to the Presidents Box.  OMG.  Since we are all still jet lagged we did not expect to survive 3 hours of Opera,  but the performance had us spell bound and we walked out on a high.  It is an hour later as I write.

On the morning we go to the Chernobyle Museum and then may a call at Babi Yar. This will not be an easy day. 

Enough,  pictures when I am more mentally alert.

London, briefly

We have made it to London and I’m writing during our 2 1/2 hour layover before getting our flight to Kiev.  Hard to believe we are actually underway after nine months of thinking about it.

We had a delightful stay in Covesville with Malena,  Dan and the boys.  There was lots of activity and I am happy to report that the record is intact.  I helped enlarge the Guinea fowl house.  Fortunately the weather was cool but not cold so we set a new record.  For new readers once we built a chicken house in 13 degree F weather.  As we left, a work crew was waiting for us to get out of the way so they could tear off the back porch of the house in preparation for building a very nice addition.  We stored the coach in Woolen Mills Self Storage and Dan drove us to Bethesda so we could vist with cousin Bob and Jane Levey. 

We visited in their apartment on Wisconsin Ave and then walked across the street to Persimmon for dinner.  As we walked back to our hotel with them we bumped into their daughter Emily on the street.  This called for extending the visit a bit and we settled into the hotel lobby for a chat.  Sweet.

The next morning,  Oct 2 brought home the impact of the idiotic government shutdown, none of the galleries we had planned on seeing were open.  Fortunately we were “forced” to go to the Phillips Collection and what a collection.  We enjoyed 2 hours plus there and then found lunch at Kramers Books! Fun and we didn’t buy any books,  too much weight.

Flying on British Airways in Business Class resulted in a flight I hardly noticed.  Between the seats that let you lay flat and our new noise canceling headphones it was quiet, comfortable and reasonably private.  We are enjoying the lounge amenities too.

Next post will be from Kiev and I hope to include some photos too.