Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why I Love New York

In front of Harry's Shoes
Broadway at 83rd Street

On my way home from the subway recently I saw approaching in the opposite direction what one might describe as a "sweet little old lady". You know the type--hair tinted a subtle shade of lavender blue which she's had washed and set every Tuesday and Saturday at the same "beauty parlor" for the last forty years where she enjoys reading McCalls under the dome of an enormous hairdryer. She was wearing a conservative yet stylish tweed suit which had been expertly tailored to accommodate her slight osteoporosis stoop. She was tastefully accesorized with a single strand of cultured pearls and pearl button earrings. She wore black and tan spectator pumps in the kind of sensible heel only a real New Yorker who actually walks places would choose. Her capacious handbag, probably containing mostly Kleenex and cough drops, dangled from her forearm and, of course, matched her shoes perfectly.

She was dwarfed behind a Cadillac of a walker with a high-tech hand break system and yellow tennis balls affixed to the feet of its front legs. She shuffled along behind this thing wearing the contented expression of someone who'd just come from a lunch spent reminiscing with a dear old friend or perhaps she was just taken with the perfect weather that day. As I passed her on the sidewalk I noticed that attached to the lapel of her lovely tweed suit was a HUGE button emblazoned in big black letters with the words "IMPEACH BUSH".

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Friday, October 27, 2006

"M" is for the million things she gave me...

Never one to shy away from expressing her opinion, my mother fired off this sharply worded email to her local Assemblyman, Richard "Dick" Merkt this morning:

As a 35 year resident of Morris County and the proud mother of 5 children, two of whom are gay, I was more than disappointed to read your appalling comments regarding the rights of same sex couples as rightly demanded by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. I was enraged and disgusted.

To read your ridiculous argument about the intentions of 1947 was particularly disturbing. Our intentions in the early part of the 20th century excluded women voting, segregated black communities, banned Jews from country clubs, etc. The early framers of the U.S. Constitution had no idea, certainly, of making blacks equal citizens, to make no mention of women (which they made no mention of) or nonlandowners, for that matter. Hopefully, we have evolved as a society. Although, clearly not all of us. Some of us suffer from extreme homophobia and bigotry. It is my belief that such individuals should certainly not be permitted to hold public office. Thank you for coming out of the closet and letting all of us see you for the bigot you are.

If you are truly concerned with protecting marriage, perhaps you should busy yourself with an amendment to make divorce illegal, rather than preventing loving couples from committing to one another and enjoying the same rights as others to do so. Of course, that might not fly so well politically.

Fortunately, the framers of our Federal Constitution had the foresight to "protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority."

Rest assured I will do all in my power to defeat you in your next bid for office.

Thanks Mom!

Below is a shot of Mom with all her grandkids last Mother's Day.

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Chapel, part 2

As the wise old sit-com theme song goes "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have, The Facts of Life."

If the "good" is the recent NJ Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage then this must be the "bad":

Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris, vowed to have the justices (who ruled on same-sex unions) impeached. "Neither the framers of New Jersey's 1947 constitution, nor the voters who ratified it, ever remotely contemplated the possibility of same-sex marriage," Merkt said.

And such are the Facts of Life in New Jersey.

Sadly, Merkt is from my home county of Morris. I imagine after he impeaches the NJ Supreme Court Justices he will begin a campaign to throw out every decision made based on the US Constitution that our founding fathers never could have "remotely contemplated" back in 1787 when it was ratified.

Just for laughs, here's Merkt's contact info: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/members/merkt.aspand

a link to the full Washington Post article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/26/AR2006102600106.html


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Goin' to the chapel...kinda

Unless you've been in a coma you've undoubtedly heard the ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court on gay marriage. I figured I'd post it anyway since Jersey is my home state and all...

"TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey's highest court on Wednesday guaranteed gay couples the same rights as married heterosexuals, but left it up to state lawmakers to decide if such unions can be called marriage."

Law makers have 180 days to either decide to call it marriage or come up with with some other "separate but equal" word to define same sex unions. So it boils down to a game of semantics. Frankly, the only thing to call it is marriage. It's the only word that will carry any weight anywhere else in the world. And didn't we learn back in Brown V. the Board of Education that there's no such thing as "separate but equal"?


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Closet Space

No, the title of this post is not some clever reference to Mark Foley or the outing of gay Republicans--it's about closet space. Actual closet space. You know, like for clothes and stuff.

Ever since I bought my tiny studio apartment on the Upper West Side six years ago I've been trying to figure out ways of maximizing its scant 450 square feet of living space into an actual one-bedroom--albeit a very small one bedroom. I've made sketches and floor plans and taped borders out on the floor where future walls might be. By doing this, technically it would turn my studio into what is known in New York real estate as a "Jr. 1 BR". Real estate here is full of terms that only a seasoned professional in the business can decipher and each has its own price point. For example, Jr. 4, Classic 6, Floor thru, etc. You get the picture.

But wall construction might be costly and block some light and make the whole apartment complicated to heat and cool. So, having given up my dream of an actual wall separating my living and sleeping areas a few years ago, I thought at least I could build a walk-in closet that would increase storage and create a sleeping alcove making it an "alcove studio". This apparently slightly higher up on the food chain of New York real estate than a regular studio, but not quite a "Jr. 1 BR" and certainly not as high up as a full fledged one-bedroom.

Anyway, I sketched this proposed walk-in closet two years ago making various specifications, taking careful measurements and passed the whole thing along to my engineer father. Dad, now retired with lots of time on his hands for these kinds of projects went about building in his garage the framed studwork for my future walk-in closet. And there it sits to this day--in a garage in New Jersey.

SO, inspired by a book I'm reading, Julie and Julia, about a New York secretary who proposes to make all of the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in an ill-equipped kitchen in Long Island City in one year and blogs about it, (I know--sounds very "chick-lit, but I'm enjoying it.) I figure if I do the same thing with my walk-in closet it will keep me honest and I might actually get it done.

It'll be fun. I'll post before and after pictures, we'll give stuff to Good Will and hopefully I'll increase the value of my apartment. Whattya say?

By the way, here's an example of what a selling point closet space can be in NYC:

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Soldiers and Sailors Monument, NYC

I've always been a little obsessed with this monument. It's the Soldiers and Sailors Monument honoring those who served in the Civil War defending the Union. I'm not sure why I find it so fascinating. I guess there's something sort of incongruous about a big ol' Civil War monument in the middle of New York City. Another thing I like about it is its unapologetic Victorian grandiosity. Technically it's Neo-Classical in style but with a typically grand Victorian take. It also happens to be at 89th and Riverside, just six blocks from my house. Most of all though, it does what it's supposed to do: memorialize. I can't round that particular bend of Riverside Drive without thinking about the Civil War when this gleaming monument comes into view.

I recently learned that President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the monument in December of 1900. It struck me how like Roosevelt this monument is--bold and unapologetic. Indeed, he left his larger than life legacy all over my neighborhood, most notably, the Museum of Natural History and Theodore Roosevelt Park which features a huge (flattering) statue of him astride a horse facing Central Park with the dates of his birth and death on it. 1858 to 1919.

What I'm getting at here is how we memorialize and mourn is very much indicative of the time in which we live. I say this during a week when human remains are still being found in Lower Manhattan as a result of the September 11th attacks. I'm reminded of the ongoing debate between the families of the victims, the city and the architects over just how to memorialize these people. Whether it should be reflecting pools, beams of light, a park, or a subterranean museum of sorts. Whatever they do, I hope they take a chapter from Teddy Roosevelt's book and make it bold. The minute I see that monument I want to remember those 3000 people. I don't want it disguised in some park-like setting or have to take an elevator below the street to see it either. It should be out there, proud and unapologetic, just like the towers were to begin with.

For more information and historical photos of the Soliders and Sailors Monument go to: http://www.nyc-architecture.com/HAR/HAR017.htm

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Friday, October 20, 2006


The posts may be a little slow in coming for a few days. I've been completely knocked on my ass by acute sinusitis:

An inflammation of the sinuses (hollow spaces in the bone of the cheeks and forehead) due to infection. Common symptoms of sinusitis include pain in the face, colored (not white or clear) secretions from the nose, and headache.

After 5 miserable days I called my doctor who called in some antibiotics for me. No office visit was necessary. He trusts that I know the symptoms well enough by now because I've had it often enough. I even had surgery a few years ago to cut down on the infections, but occasionally one slips through. I had an ethmoidectomy. Anyway, here's a picture of it which I thought was pretty disturbing. Enjoy!


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Another one for the record books

The most expensive real estate deal in U.S. history was made yesterday right here in New York City. Met Life sold the sprawling, 80 acre apartment complex known as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village for a whopping $5.4 billion to Tishman Speyer, the company that owns both Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building, in a joint venture with Black Rock Realty. Thus ending a bidding war that included a bid from the residents of the complex themselves which fell about a billion dollars short.

Why the high stakes bidding war? Because Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village were the last bastion of middle income housing left in Manhattan with about 80% of the 11,000 units falling under rent-stabilization guidelines. (This means that rents can only be raised a certain percentage every year. There is a common misconception that rent stabilized apartments are far below market value, but that is not necessarily the case. Also, people confuse rent stabilization with rent-control which is virtually non-existent these days.)

Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant town were built in the mid-forties as affordable housing for returning World War II servicemen and their families. The complex stretches from 14th Street to 23 Street on the East Side from First Avenue to the East River. The architecture is strictly no-frills and the 1940s urban planning breaks up the grid of the city making it difficult to get around but even so, many residents love it and have called it home for decades. Naturally there is much speculation as to what will become of these long-time residents and their affordable way of life.

Jerry I Speyer, president and CEO of Tishman Speyer said the residents of rent-stabilized apartments are completely protected by the existing system. "No one should be concerned about a sudden or dramatic shift in this neighborhood's make-up, character or charm," he said.

"Sudden" and "dramatic" being the operative words here.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Butternut Squash Soup

Remember that butternut squash I got at the farm last week? Well, it finally got turned into soup tonight. I woke up this morning with a bit of a cold and the nip of autumn in the air, so what better than soup?

It should be noted that this is perhaps the first soup I've ever made in my life from scratch. Not that I'm a novice in the kitchen, on the contrary. I'm addicted to the Food Network and own a shelf full of cookbooks. I like to cook, do it often and am even pretty good at it. But this is my first attempt at soup. And Butternut Squash Soup at that. After researching a few recipes, I came up with a hybrid of my own. Here it is:

Butternut Squash Soup

2-3 lb. butternut squash
2-3 Tbls olive oil
2 Tbls butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup apple cider
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut squash lengthwise and remove seeds. Rub cut surfaces of squash with 1 Tbls olive oil and place face down on a cookie sheet. Bake for 45 minutes. When squash is finished, remove cookie sheet from oven and set aside until squash is cool enough to handle. Once cooled, use a large spoon to scoop squash pulp from skins. Place pulp in a medium sized bowl and set aside.

In a large, heavy saucepan heat butter and remaining oil. When butter starts to foam, add chopped onion and garlic and sautee until translucent. (About 5 minutes) Next add apple cider and bring to a simmer. Add chicken broth, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Add squash pulp to mixture and stir to incorporate for a few minutes.

Turn off heat and transfer soup mixture in small batches to a blender. Puree soup mixture in blender on low speed making sure the top to the blender is secure. Pour pureed mixture into a large bowl and set aside. Continue until entire soup mixture is pureed. Return pureed soup to original saucepan and reheat. Add grated nutmeg and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Serve hot and garnish with dollop of sour cream or homemade croutons. (Crouton recipe follows)

Homemade Croutons:
Cut half a loaf of French, Italian or sour dough bread into 3/4 inch cubes.
Place in a large ziplock bag and drizzle with 3 to 4 Tbls olive oil, 3/4 tsp garlic salt, freshly ground pepper and 3 to 4 Tbls grated Parmesan cheese. Seal bag and toss ingredients until cubes are thoroughly coated. Place cubes on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven for about 15 minutes at 450 F.

Try this. It's pretty good.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Joie de Vivre

At last. My final travelogue email which my sister Diane described as "the season finale". Here it is:

One last note now that I'm back in New York. First, thank you all for indulging me by reading my little travelogues. I hope you enjoyed them. I had a lot of fun writing them. The positive feedback was very encouraging and gave me incentive to continue documenting my trip.

The job offer on the Seven Seas Voyager was such short notice I wasn't sure I wanted to take it. It meant scrambling to get my passport and things at home in order in just a couple of days. It meant rushed rehearsal time and pressure to learn the shows quickly. Add to that the unknown factors of who I'd be working with and all the foreign travel and I was afraid the stress of everything might outweigh the benefits of going.

While mulling over the decision, a wise woman told me "don't let fear make your decisions." I couldn't think of a good argument against that so I took the job and don't regret it at all. I leave you with one last image. It's a painting I saw at the Picasso museum in Malaga. It's called Joie de Vivre. It spoke to me instantly and reminded me to always seek the Joy of Life. I hope maybe it will for you, too.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Stockholm, Sweden

I realize I've been skipping back and forth across the Atlantic a lot lately with these posts. This is the penultimate travelogue email in the series I sent home during my employment over the summer on the Seven Seas Voyager which was the original inspiration for this blog.

I loved Stockholm. It was the very last city I visited and knowing I'd be flying back to New York the next day, I took advantage Sweden's extra long summer daylight to see as much of it as I could.

Wherever you are in Stockholm, you're never far from water. It is a graceful and civilized city situated on a series of islands where Lake Malarin meets the sea. Stockholm is a lively, energetic city where athletic Swedes can be seen strolling, jogging, blading or biking everywhere in the city at any time of day or night. There are parks, soccer fields, bike paths and hiking trails throughout town and along the many rivers and canals. Unfortunately I only had a little time to snap some pictures but fell instantly in love with Stockholm. It's definitely on my list of places to revisit.

The photos below are: A view across a canal of Norstedts (a popular department store), The opera house where Gustav III was assassinated in 1792 (an event which later inspired a Verdi opera), some Swedish kids playing soccer in a square on Gamla Stan Island where the old town is located, The Baroque facade of the Royal Palace which conceals part of the original medieval castle built here, A panoramic view of the city center, Another view of the Royal Palace which boasts one more room than Buckingham Palace. (The royal family only uses this palace for state affairs and has their official residence at Drottingholm Palace, a much smaller and warmer building.)

Enjoy. xo M

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Old Country

As I mentioned in my last post, I visited with my parents this past weekend who have just returned from 5 weeks abroad. They spent a month of that time in Italy and a week cruising the Greek Isles.

They enjoy their retirement.

While in Italy they stayed in my father's ancestral village where he spent his childhood. The name of the town is Coreglia (pronounced kor-ay-lya) which looks like this:

The town is so named because from an aerial view it appears to be heartshaped--the root "Core" meaning "heart" in Italian, although it might as well have been named for the warm atmosphere and lovely people who live there. As you can see it's quite a picturesque spot located in the heart of Tuscany at the foothills of the alps.

My father's experience there, and indeed the first six years of his life, were not quite as peaceful and lovely as this picture might suggest, however. Dad was born in 1938 just before the war in Europe. His father went away to fight in the Italian army before my father was old enough to remember him, a duty my grandfather resented being a staunch anti-fascist. His father ended up spending most of the war in an American POW camp in North Africa and did not return home until 1945. Meanwhile my grandmother was forced to raise my father alone in a war torn country with bombs going off all around.

Coreglia is outside the city of Lucca which is halfway between Pisa and Florence and therefore was in the line of fire for a lot of planes overhead during the war. My father, who can be a bit morbid at times, likes to tell the story of playing with a sheep in a meadow as a child, hearing the sound of fighter planes echoing off the mountains, running inside for safety only to return to the meadow later to find that a bomb had blown the head off of said sheep. Charming. Thanks for the bedtime story, Dad.

Another rather dramatic tale involves an air raid in the middle of the night. My father heard the planes, was frightened and ran from his bed to my grandmother's room for comfort. Minutes later a bomb hit the corner of their house where my father's room had been. Now, you must understand, my father never told these stories to shock, impress or scare us in any way but rather, they were just a fact of life for him.

It's only as an adult, especially after living through 9/11 here in New York, that I realize what kind of impact this must have had on him at such a young age. This is long before people started running off to psychologists of course or even talked about things like post-traumatic stress disorder. But somehow children are amazingly resilient and can still manage to be kids even in the middle of chaos. So thankfully my father has many happy memories of Coreglia as well.

So. While mom and dad were away, my mother decided that it is her dream to have all of her children and grandchildren together in Italy at the same time. ("Because it's important to know where you come from.") She'd like to arrange it for their anniversary next year. We could stay in my father's village and use it as a home base to make day trips to places like Sienna, Pisa or Florence or for 3 or 4 day sojourns to Rome, Venice or Milan. The plan is to rent a villa for a month or so to accomodate for varying schedules. The villa might look something like this:

with views like this:

and grounds like this:

and a pool like this:

This is my mother's dream: A villa in Tuscany. And I get to go.

Now I ask you, who am I to stand in the way of my mother's dream?

Stay tuned for the madcap misadventures of a family who goes on vacation with their adult children.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Apple Picking, Take 2

So I thought we'd give the apple picking another go 'round. We were due out at my folks for a visit this past weekend and my sister was going to be there with my niece, so we could fight fire with fire by bringing a child along battling all the other families out there in the orchards. My mother recommended a less busy farm than the one we visited last time. We were glad about that because this being Columbus Day weekend it was like the mall the day after Thanksgiving at some of the other farms. There was even one we passed that required police to keep the traffic moving along out front. Orange cones and traffic whistles kind of ruin the whole pastoral experience of the outing in my opinion. Plus, this farm had horse drawn wagon rides, too, which seemed preferable to the tractor driven variety.

My niece, Charlotte (pictured looking adorable choosing squash in the second photo), is only 18 months old so that sort of dictated the pace and duration of our visit. She began with the wagon ride and then munched on apple cider doughnuts afterward. Guess which one was the bigger hit. We then went through the corn maze (you call it corn, we call it maize)* which went over like a lead balloon. She refused to walk over the dead corn stalks and stared at us all like we'd lost our minds as we carried her through. Then once again in lieu of actually picking apples we hit the pumpkin patch. That was by far the hit of the day. After all, pumpkins are brightly colored and since they're on the ground, easily accessible to a toddler. It works on so many levels. She chose the the perfect pumpkin, we bought some apples and butternut squash (which Scott says I'm supposed to make soup out of) snapped a few photos on a kiddy tractor (which didn't make the cut below) and called it a day. I'll admit it was a lot more fun sharing the experience from a child's perspective and her short attention span made it quick and painless, too.

The photos below are Mellick's Town Farm, Oldwick, NJ, Charlotte with squash, the horse drawn wagon rides, Charlotte chooses the perfect pumpkin, the weather vane atop Mellick's farm (a photo Scott took and insisted I include), and finally Scott and I pose for a deliriously happy ending photo.

*Scott's joke.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Peterhof and Catherine's Palace, Russia

Even more from Russia! I know it seems like a lot but in a country so rich in cultural treasures and history it's hard to narrow down what to send home.

Palaces! They got a million of 'em in Russia--believe me. These however, are two of the most impressive in the country and I got to tour them both. Peterhof (Peter's Court) was built by none other than Peter the Great. It was used as a summer residence and hunting lodge and was reportedly his favorite palace. Catherine's Palace was not named or built for Catherine the Great (although she enjoyed it, too) but rather for Peter the Great's second wife who was also his mistress for a time, Catherine I.

They are both terribly impressive and done in high rococo style (a good 50 or 60 years after it was fashionable in Italy and France by the way). They have 18 karat gold leaf this, marble that, inlaid ivory whatnot and hand carved hoo-ha all over the place. You get the picture. There is even a room in Catherine's palace that is made entirely of amber and was described as the 8th wonder of the world after it was completed but no photos are allowed in this room.

The thing I found most impressive about these palaces however was that they were both occupied by the Nazis during WWII and were consequently gutted, burned and destroyed by them. There was literally nothing left but a shell of the palaces, ash and rubble. Both palaces were painstakingly restored from pieces pulled from the rubble, well documented photos of every room and the foresight of some art experts and historians who hid 30% of the art treasures and saved samples of furniture, tiles, china, etc., before the Nazi occupation. Even more interesting is that the bulk of this restoration work happened under communist rule.

The photos below are: A view of Peterhof and the Grand Cascade from the lower gardens, the portrait gallery at Peterhof, A grand table setting at Peterhof, Catherine's Palace as you approach it from the gates, followed by a more detailed photo of the facade and finally Catherine's throne room, the first in an entire series of "gold rooms" in the palace.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Yusopov Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

More from my trip to Russia:

I had to give Yusupov Palace its own travelogue email because it truly made an impression on me. Never a royal residence, it was owned by the Yusupov family who were even more wealthy than the reigning czars at the time of the revolution. This is the palace were Rasputin was first poisoned, shot, bludgeoned and finally drowned back in December of 1916. This was also the favorite palace of Queen Elizabeth II during her first official visit to Russia in 1994--a fact I do not dispute based on the hilarious photo of her visit. (She is standing there with an open mouthed grin ear to ear, her teeth showing like some sort of musical comedy star.)

Anyway, we had the palace all to ourselves the night we toured it and were greeted by court dancers in 18 century costume lining the grand staircase upon our arrival. We were then given a private tour of the palace and were led down to the apartment of rooms and basement where the murder of Rasputin was first plotted and then carried out. (There are wax figures depicting the event.) After that we were led to a ballroom where we were served caviar and champagne, were entertained by the court dancers and a quintet of traditional Russian instruments. From there we were led into a jewel box of a theater and listened to an opera concert. As you can imagine I bought into all this nonsense hook, line and sinker!

The photos below are: The court dancers greeting us on the grand staircase, Rasputin about to eat some "poisoned pastries," The red reception room, One of the ballrooms (if you follow the feet of the muses on the ceiling you can learn to dance), Our very talented and entertaining quintet of musicians, And finally the theatre with the concert in full swing.Enjoy!

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

From Russia with Love

In addition to all the warnings you get when you visit Russia they also have very strict rules about tourist visas which usually the crew of a ship can get around by having a Seaman's Book, which I did not have in time for my visit here. I managed to get into the country anyway though, here is a little excerpt from an email I sent recounting a simple lunch date with a friend.

As for St. Petersburg apparently it is okay to enter the country provided you are part of a tour group. My crew shuttle pass sufficed as a tour ticket so I did manage to get off the ship once although I was scared to death doing it. They worry the crap out of you in Russia with the immigration restrictions and warnings about street crime. They really scrutinized my passport at immigration along with my crew pass and my shuttle pass. Finally, I was issued a stern warning by the Russian immigration lady. "Crew shuttle only!" So I yessed her emphatically and walked on shore. I had no intention of getting on the crew shuttle however because I was going to go over to one of the other berths where the Seven Seas Navigator was docked. I had arranged via email to meet my friend Sybil who was one of the singers on the Mississippi Queen in the other quartet and now works on the Navigator.

So, panicked that Madam Sousatzka* was going to send an immigration official after me and scared I might be mugged at any moment, I kept my hands firmly in my pockets on my wallet, watch and passport and hightailed it over to the Navigator. I met Sybil and we embarked on an escapade to change money. That was interesting, too. It was some back-alley place with people waiting outside--it looked like some sort of communist bread line. The currency here is rubles which I didn't know they still used and sounds so delightfully Chekovian to me. ("But Uncle Vanya, the passage to Moscow is 300 rubles, how will we ever afford it?") We stopped and ate bad Russian pizza and talked and talked about life on the MQ versus the Voyager and Navigator. It was nice to see a familiar face. On the way back we stopped and asked an old Russian woman to take a picture of us in front of St. Isaac's church. She first attempted to take the picture with the lens pointing at her eye, but her granddaughter soon straightened her out.

I'm still waiting for a copy of that picture, by the way. Sybil, if you read this, email me that photo!

* Madame Sousatzka refers to a 1988 Shirley MacLaine movie in which she plays an over the top, domineering Russian piano instructor by the same name complete with outlandish gypsy style head scarves.

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St. Petersburg, Russia

Going to St. Petersburg was truly the experience of a lifetime. Who knows when or if I'll ever be back there, but I was extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a total of 6 days in St. Petersburg during my employment on the Voyager. Here is the first of 3 emails I sent home from there.

I apologize for the length of this travelogue in advance. It's just that there is so much to say about St. Petersburg I hardly know where to begin. It is a city of such wild contradictions. The wealth of its history and cultural treasures will astound you while the scope of its decay and desperation will break your heart. Its corruption will infuriate you while the warmth of its people will move you.

We pulled into the Port of St. Petersburg on the 4th of July and were greeted with a brass band playing Souza's "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue." I must admit I got a little choked up by this. But following this warm greeting were stern warnings from our staff captain and tour managers: don't go anywhere alone, watch your belongings at all times, stay out of the nightclubs, don't get into a cab unless there is a taxi sign on the vehicle and always negotiate the price before getting in, don't take a cab alone, don't buy caviar, jewelry or vodka from street vendors, don't appear impatient in the customs line, don't, don't, don't...

Indeed, there is almost a feeling of lawlessness here or that the city is under the grip of such organized crime even if something did happen to you here you would have little recourse. Passengers and crew alike came back with tales of the incredible sights they saw while others had stories of being taken by a vendor or cab driver who pretended he didn't understand them, drove them around to every cruise terminal in the city except the one where we were docked, ran out of gas, had his "friend" pick them up, etc, etc.

I would not recommend trying to see St. Petersburg or traveling in Russia on your own. It is an exercise in frustration. The way to see it is on an organized tour or a cruise ship. That said, it is an impressive city built over 300 years ago by Peter the Great on the marshy delta of the Neva and Moika Rivers. Palaces literally line the banks of these rivers. Most of them belonged not only to royalty but other nobility as well as the richest families in Russia. After the revolution of 1917 most of the palaces were carved up into apartment blocks or used for government purposes while the city's grand cathedrals were used as warehouses, storage facilities and in one case a skating rink where some of the best Soviet figure skaters trained.

The pictures below are: A view from December Square across the River where some "palaces" can be seen, A line of palaces including the one on the right which is the Wedding Palace where Soviet couples applied for marriage licenses and were encouraged to have their wedding ceremonies instead of a church (many weddings are still held here today), the Fine Arts Palace which is the best art school in Russia, More palaces with the dome of St. Isaac's in the distance, A bronze monument to Peter the Great in December Square, And finally St. Isaac's Cathedral which Catherine the Great had built during her reign.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Visby, Sweden

Another place I'd never heard of until I actually went there. A beautiful, quiet town and a lovely surprise.

A thousand years ago Visby was a Viking fishing village. Today the main industry is tourism and of course the people don't refer to themselves as Vikings. But then, no Norseman ever did. "Viking" was a name given to them by the people they invaded and conquered. It comes from the old Norse word "Vik" meaning bay and "ing" referring to one who comes from the bay since "Vikings" were excellent seafarers and almost always attacked via the water. And by the way, Vikings never wore helmets with horns on them. Any Swede will tell you this an invention of Wagnerian
Opera and Hollywood. Thousands of Viking burial grounds have been and not one helmet with horns was ever found. Nevertheless, they hock them like nobody's business in all the souvenir shops.

Located on the island of Gotland, one of the hundreds that make up the Swedish archipelago, today Visby is a seaside resort catering mostly locals from the mainland. I never realized what sun-worshipers Swedes are before coming here. Anywhere there is open space; a park, a beach, a dock along the water, the locals will bask in the sun until well after 9 PM. I guess they have to get their fill to last them through the long, dark Swedish winters.

I had but a couple of hours in Visby to snap the following pictures: One of the little commercial squares in town, A ruined church dating back 800 years or so to Sweden's Catholic days, The present Lutheran Church with its distinctive three spires which can be seen for miles out at sea, The churchyard along side the Lutheran Church, A quiet back street, and finally Visby's old world charm shown here by a picturesque doorway and a yellow rosebush.

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