Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The kindness of strangers

HH and I went to Russia in late September. We took a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow and it was more than I ever expected it to be - both the cruise and the experience.

When we returned a friend asked what was the best thing, and I was stumped. There were so many best things so where do you start? The Hermitage, which has been on my bucket list forever? Catherine's Palace? The Kremlin? Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral? I just couldn't pin down one thing. Then I started processing photos and knew what was the best thing about the entire trip. Bear with me; I'll get there.

On our first full day on the ship we went to the Hermitage; it was one of the package of tours included in the fare. We decided to extract ourselves from the group once we were in the door, though, because I wanted to be free to roam and not be herded. It was marvelous. We wandered at will and had just decided to rejoin the group for the bus trip back when I saw a small placard for a special Vermeer exhibit. Well, don't ask me twice. Also, HH remembered being at the Hermitage years ago and entering a gallery to find Rembrandts set up on easels all over the space. Not fastened to the walls, not secured with motion sensors, just loose on easels. So between the Vermeer and the possibility of finding the Rembrandt room I went to the ticket counter and paid for admission again because we'd exited the turnstile and the admission ticket is good for one entry only. If I remember correctly, it was 600 rubles, less than $10. They really need to charge more.

But first, let's dispense with The Hermitage in general. I always thought it was pronounced Hermitaj, like the Taj Mahal, but it, in fact, is pronounced like the word that indicates a shelter, a refuge. The current building - a greatly truncated version is shown below - is the fourth iteration of the Winter Palace. It eventually became one of the largest and oldest museums in the world under the eclectic collection policies of Catherine the Great, who is said to have initiated her collections based more on quantity than quality.

A very small portion of the line waiting to get in is in the lower right of the photo, three-fourths of which was Chinese tourists.

The place is so huge it's impossible to get all of any one room in a photo. The next photo is a tiny portion of the landing after the first flight of stairs. I thought of how OSHA would go crazy when I saw a housekeeper vacuuming the red carpet on the stairs, trailing the cord willy-nilly, with tourists going up and down, looking everywhere but where they were going.

In no particular order, mostly because I didn't take notes, I present a minuscule percentage of the grandeur of The Hermitage.

Here's a little bit of individual works of art. 

Sleeping Ariadne by Paolo Andrea Triscornia, purchased by the museum in 1798

Psyche in a Faint by Pietro Tenerani, ca 18th-19th century

Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, early 16th century

Normally, paintings are my thing. I love them, especially in the religious art genre. I have some photos of them but a couple of different things really caught my eye this time, one of them being mosaics. These tiles are mere slivers, less than a quarter inch. I've never seen a collection of fine mosaics like these anywhere.

The following mosaic shows a skewed perspective. This is a round tabletop and the artist compensated by making foreground objects lean inward. Brilliant. I couldn't get the whole image, just these two slices.

Beautiful Sky of Italy by Michelangelo Barberi, 1846

Temple in Tivoli by Giacomo Raffaelli, ca 1817

The following five photos are sections of the same tabletop. Again, it was too big, probably three by five feet, to put all in one photo. Unfortunately I don't have the artist's name. Everything you see is mosaic, including the geometric border. It's a masterpiece.

The final mosaic piece here is this column from Italy, 13th century

The most abused art here is wooden inlaid flooring. There are no carpets down in high traffic areas and booties are not required as they are at other museums.  Our guides were disgusted that protective booties are not given out at the entrance. But aren't they exquisite?

Now back to the Vermeer. We asked guard after guard how to find it because the museum is a maze and apparently we're not good mazers. (A note about the guards. In the days HH remembers, women called babushkas guarded the galleries. They were sour, unfriendly people, not prone to help. The guards these days are more approachable; I think we encountered only one who must have been a holdover from the Soviet days.) We finally we found the one Vermeer on exhibit, The Geographer, but what a delight. Because photographs were not allowed, I don't have one, but that's ok. I stood there for the longest time, completely enchanted. HH was not similarly enchanted and was wandering off, looking for the Rembrandts.

There are only 34 paintings firmly attributed to Vermeer, so this one allowed me to see another 3% of his work, in addition to others I've seen elsewhere. How terrifically wonderful, but still not the best thing that happened.

We did find the Rembrandt room and at least to me, it was a disappointment. They weren't on the easels HH remembered but hung traditionally on walls. The gallery was dark except where paintings had sunlight pouring in on them, they were in great need of restoration, and there was even a window open! for ventilation. I didn't take one photo.

Because we missed the bus back to the ship and because that evening we were to attend a performance of Swan Lake nearby (which we would have gotten to via another bus from the ship), we needed to make sure we knew how to get there, so we went to the museum's information desk. Olga was on duty and thankfully speaks fluent English, a good thing because the extent of my Russian vocabulary is da, nyet, spasibo, and dobroye utro (yes, no, thank you, and good morning). Limited, but I was surprised to see how far spasibo got me. When I just looked it up to check the spelling, I realize I'd mistakenly pronounced it with an a at the end the entire time I was in Russia. Maybe that's why the dour Russian look lightened up whenever I said it: maybe spaciba actually means something like, How ya doin', sailor?

Olga spent a lot of time with us, showing us on the map where to walk, what side of the street to walk on, which bridge to cross, and where to turn to get to the theater, and also suggested a couple of places to stop for dinner. Finally she said it was getting close to her quitting time and she would walk us to the restaurant.

We decided on a place called 1001 Nights, with Mediterranean food. Not only did she take us there, with commentary along the way about the buildings we were passing, her education, and her life pre- and post-Soviet rule, she took us inside, spoke with the wait staff who didn't speak any English, and made sure we were settled before she left. We asked her to join us, but the following day was her day off and she wanted to go home, which made the time she took to make sure we didn't get lost even more valuable. I'm always struck by the kindness of strangers.

This is a building we passed; it's the "New Hermitage," the roof held up by 15-foot granite Atlases that date to the mid-1800s.

And here is the charming, cave-like 1001 Nights restaurant in St. Petersburg.

Unbelievably, neither of us remembers exactly what this was. I usually take a photo of the menu but not this time. We think it had rice, walnuts, olives, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, soft cheese, and we don't know what else. It was pretty and it was good.

We also ordered caviar on toast. I'd never had it before but once again, when in Rome... And I loved it. It tasted like the sea. I'll never forget that first bite.

HH ordered some kind of cake with ice cream,

and I had hot brandied cherries with ice cream.

As we were finishing, the waitress brought a phone to our table and when I took it, Olga was calling from her home. She was concerned that we would be late for the ballet if we walked from the restaurant and wanted us to make sure to get a cab, and to let us know how much we should pay for it. She then spoke with the waitress, who ordered the cab and asked us to stay inside until it came. She would not let us go out until the cabbie called to say he was there.

Here are another two views, this time of the lobby of the restaurant while we were waiting for the cab.

When the call came, the waitress walked us out, put us in the cab, and spoke to the driver. All I could say was spasibo and give her a hug.

This experience, with two people who didn't know us from Adam, who couldn't do anything for them other than to say thank you, who showed us so much kindness... I will never forget this generosity. They are the best things I experienced in Russia in the ten days we were there.


Thought of the day:

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. ~ Aesop

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Traveling in place

Since going off the road just about a year ago, life has been pretty different. I sold my truck and trailer because the truck payment was a lot of money, and what's the use of a trailer without a truck to pull it with? I, however, admit to a continuing case of wanderlust. After replacing the truck with a cute little Ford Focus, though...

....which will not tow a thing, any domestic traveling we do is going to be via the motel route. Having once had a paid-for trailer, the thought of the cost of staying in motels and eating out is daunting, but putting it in perspective by thinking how much the trailer and truck cost, not to mention diesel fuel at 11 miles to the gallon, maybe not so bad after all. Even so, last Sunday, to dampen the wanderlust a bit, we took the opportunity to do some world traveling via a synchronized swimming show put on by the Aquabelles of Green Valley Recreation (GVR). 

GVR is an organization that has several centers around Green Valley with pools, tennis and pickle ball courts, and fitness facilities, plus silversmithing, woodworking, ceramics, and clay studios, an art league, and clubs like mad including computers, photography, quilting, different states of members' origins, cards - actually, just name it and it's bound to exist. Membership attaches to a property's deed, which means if your home's prior owner joined GVR, you have no choice when you buy the place; you have to join too. My house was already in GVR which was ok because I wanted use of the facilities, but it's not cheap. It's about $2300 to join and annual dues are $450. However, I use the well-equipped fitness center almost daily and I couldn't join a commercial place for anywhere near my annual fee. Plus the art league with studio space and many free workshops... but I digress.

The Aquabelles are one of the clubs here and they put on an annual show that's open to the community; this year's was the 51st. The members pay for their own equipment, props, and decorations for the show but pass the hat for a local charity. This year any donations they receive are going to DaZee's, a local shelter for victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. I had heard of DaZee's but did not know it was a fund-raising forum for a shelter. This is only one of many organizations that raises funds for local charities in Green Valley. 

I  was not in Green Valley last year at this time, so this is the first time HH and I, and our friend Kathy down the street, went to a performance. We had a blast. The theme of this year's show was Around the World in Eighty Minutes, so here's where my virtual traveling comes in.

This is the pool we look out on when we're in the fitness center, and was the venue for the three shows put on this weekend, with the Santa Rita mountains in the distance.

I admire these women no end. They're a lesson in enjoying life to the fullest; just get out there and have fun. This is their opening dance for the New York stop on their tour. The woman on the right? I want the muscles on her back.

Here they are in the pool at the beginning of their act,

and some waving-leg work. The emcee for the show mentioned the synchronized swimming performances at the recent Olympics, and added, "That's not us." But I couldn't do what these women do and thought they were wonderful.

Next up was a stop in England, with a performance by the AquaBeaus. They were a riot. Look at the last guy in line. How could you not laugh along out of sheer delight?

I think they maybe rehearsed for about 15 minutes but were obviously having fun.

Here they're performing their version of whatever the movement is called where each swimmer dives off to alternate sides. They just kind of fell over.

Next up was a trip to the Caribbean.

This might be the opening to the Italy segment.

This one is definitely Istanbul.

Here are their jangly ankle bracelets peeking above the water.

Zandra Pardi is a native of Mexico who now lives north of the border. She teaches Spanish classes via GVR and dances at functions like this one. HH and I first saw her at a Green Valley Concert Band's performance last spring.

I wrote to Zandra a few weeks ago about private Spanish lessons and from what I could decipher from her reply in Spanish, it sounded like she was too busy to take on anything else. After the show ended, though, I introduced myself to her and said I was the one who had asked about lessons, en espa├▒ol. She actually understood what I said and didn't laugh - bless her heart - and said she thought she'd have time on Fridays. I'm so excited and hope to start with her next month.

This is the last performance of the day and I lost track of what city it represented. There were other places they traveled, too, but I don't have photos of those.

The ensemble, in their wet and drying finery. We've already earmarked even better seats for next year's show.

Thought of the day:

When was the last time you did something for the first time?
– John C. Maxwell

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Many years ago, about 30, I was visiting family in Detroit, and one night we went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Xochimilco. I remember it being on Jefferson at the foot of the Belle Isle bridge but a search for it just now says it's in Mexican Town, a few miles to the northwest (I think). That's what memory will do for you: not much. Anyway, I had no idea what the restaurant's name meant at the time and for years afterward, but last year I learned it's the name of a borough of Mexico City known for its canals and artificial islands. I read about it in a guide book and decided we had to go there when we traveled to Mexico City last December.

HH and I hired a taxi to take us all around the city. There's public transportation but we're lazy travelers and the taxi was so convenient. The driver was bilingual and helped me with Spanish quite a bit. He needed very little help with English; mostly it was help with pronunciation. He was quite fluent. One day we had him take us to the canals of Xochimilco for a gondola (trajinera) ride. It was a beautiful, sun-shiny day and the crowds were out, so there were lines to board one of them. This doesn't look like many people, but there were queues like them in several places.

The canal was full of occupied trajineras, so it looked like it would be a long wait.

Luckily our driver knew a way to cut the line and got us on a boat of our own.

This has to be a hard way to make a living. There are no motors, just long poles used to move the boats along.

Many people come with their families and spend the entire day on a trajinera, bringing their own food and drinks. We may have been the only gringos out there that day, but that was also true for just about everywhere we went. Museums, cultural sites, restaurants, markets, churches - Mexico City and the surrounding areas are a magnet for Mexican tourists. They love their country. On the other hand, America, and other countries for all I know, have done a great job of instilling fear about the dangers of traveling in Mexico, but I believe I have a better chance of getting shot in south Tucson than anywhere I've been in Mexico.

Passengers can buy from vendors on chalupas, a kind of canoe, who get around the same way, using poles. Food, drinks, and souvenirs are all for sale.

Some people bring their own music in the form of boom boxes, but you can also hire mariachis, who travel around the canals, offering their services. Just flag them down and their trajinera will pull alongside for a serenade.

Here are two trajineras, nose to nose, sharing a mariachi band. It looks like the woman at the far right is protecting her hearing - they're loud!

There's a place there called Isla de las Munecas - The Island of the Dolls. Legend has it a girl drowned under mysterious circumstances and the dolls are possessed by her spirit. I've seen some creepy photos of dolls on the island, particularly in shots taken at night, but all I saw were some raggedy-looking toys hanging from trees and bushes.

I imagine that at night things look different indeed. It's possible to get off the boat and explore but, no. I could live without that experience.

As crowded as the canals were, there were still times when we found ourselves nearly alone. It was easy to imagine an earlier time, before it got so commercial, when the boats were used to transport produce from the gardens on the islands to markets in the city, when in early morning all was quiet except for the sounds of water lapping the shore and sides of the boats...

...and then, BOOM, there we were back in the fray, cheek and jowl with the rest of the folks looking for entertainment. It was OK, it was good. It was Mexico and this is what we came for - the sights, the music, the people - the experience of daily life in this marvelous city.


Thought of the day:

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life. - William Morris