|To Russia in Love|
Saturday 14th December 2002
It is now 5:00am, and the power is still off! It's pitch black in the room, and I'm writing in the journal by the illumination of the mobile phone! 45 minutes have passed since the wake up call, and I've sat her being very British about it, and waited patiently for lights to be turned back on.
Julie slept through the 4:15am wake up call, through the 4:30am alarm clock, and the 4:45am mobile phone alarm. I decided not to wake her as there not much we could do by the light of a mobile phone.
I finally gave up at 5:15am and phoned reception. They apologised for me 'experiencing a delay in returning the power', and offered to send someone up with a torch. I wedged our door open because there was a faint glow from the hallway because the emergency lights were still on. There were other guests in the hallway, doing their make up. Twenty minutes later the torch arrived, and the bloke said that the lights will be off until 6:30am! Unbelievable! We phoned reception again to complain, and asked to be taken to a room with power so that we could have a shower. Eventually someone shuffled up, and showed us to a vacant room, with electricity, for us to "shower only". I felt like having a dump in there and not flushing as a protest!
The power returned quite literally as we were walking out of the room, as if some sick electrician was watching us, waiting for the perfect moment to flick the switch. It was bang on 6:30am though. At least it gave us an opportunity to check the room in the brightness of a 100W bulb and not by torch light. We hadn't left anything behind.
We had to 'express checkout' because the power outage had affected the computer systems, and they couldn't process anything. We signed a piece of paper without any amount on it, and entrusted them with debiting our account with the correct amount. We felt aggrieved, but didn't complain. The front line staff were getting enough earache as it was from other guests. But we'll certainly write a letter of complaint when we're back, and personally protest by never staying in this hotel again!
We caught the hotel hopper to terminal one, hoping it was the right terminal! We walked into the chaotic check-in area and couldn't make any sense of where we should check-in. There were just queues upon queues, everywhere! We eventually found out that ANY desk would be alright for us to check-in, so we joined the nearest queue, and relaxed. It did have the potential to be a very traumatic period but we were at the airport in plenty of time for our flight, so there were no worries about being late, or missing flights. A stressed out couple kept us entertained for a while as we watched them split up, one into one queue, and one in the other, hedging their bets, in case one queue went down quicker than the other.
We also had a good chuckle because we had a nun on our queue, and Julie wondered if she would play the guitar on our flight, as in Airplane, the spoof disaster movie! We were in high spirits, and in no time we were at the check-in desk. When asked which seats we would prefer, window or aisle, Julie declared her fear of flying by asking for the seat next to the pilot! The lady behind the counter was very pleasant and allocated us to seats 5A and 5C. It meant that 5B didn't exist, which would give us more room, and we were the first seats next to business class. Sounded good!
Because we were going to Russia we had to have our passports, and more importantly, our visas verified by another member of staff.
He came and checked everything, and our sense of humour continued when we had a bloody good laugh at my passport photo, and how I've aged since 1999! It was taken only 3 ½ years ago, and I hardly look the same person! I blamed the grey hair on being a father of a teenage daughter but my beard makes me look older also.
I've grown my beard more than I usually would for this trip. The official reason was 'to keep my chin warm'! But it's really because I have this secret desire to experience icicles forming on my beard like Scott of the Antarctic!
After checking in, we went straight through into the departure lounge, buying a Sony Walkman for only £9 from Dixons. My stomach was really rumbling by now, so we went to Est Est Est for something to eat. The veggie breakfast was delicious, although the east European waitress had misunderstood out drinks order, and brought both an orange juice and a mineral water, EACH. We didn't complain, (Perhaps a little afraid to, I fear!) We noticed that it may have been a scam, and another customer ended up with double orange juice, and she was on her own!
Anyway, a quick walk around the shops, a brief phone call home, and time to buy two large bars of Cadbury's chocolates for the week, then the gate number came up on the screen. Gate 52. By the time we had walked over to gate 52, sat down briefly for Julie to take 20mg of her sedatives, the gates were opened and we were ready to board. Outwardly Julie did not quite look like serene calmness personified, but she did look far more relaxed than how I remember her in Thailand or Rome. It was however a total sham as she said that she was inwardly shitting herself!
The guy who checked our visas was also at the gate to check our boarding pass and passports again. We had another good chuckle about my rapid ageing! Within a blink of an eye we had taxied onto the runway, and were up above the clouds. Julie was a little drowsy, and certainly wasn't suffering from the uncontrollable shaking that she usually endures. Despite the fact that her hand could be held steady, her thoughts were still causing her mind to tremor! I don't think she'll ever conquer her fear of flying.
The seats were very good, although being one seat from first class was a little cruel. A brief glimpse from behind the curtain of the service received on the other side reminded you that you were a second class passenger! Just before the food trolley arrived, I decided to make a dash to the toilet, otherwise I would be trapped in my seat until they finished serving, only to end up opening the door whilst a startled lady was sitting there with her trousers around her ankles. Embarrassed, I quickly shut the door, and embarrassed, she quickly locked it! Luckily, there was another toilet available for me to escape into, so I avoided having to hover outside until she had finished, and having to go through the awkward apologies.
The food arrived, two veggie breakfasts of omelette, tomato & mushrooms. Julie had misplaced her appetite so I just had to eat them both! Despite only having eaten a hearty breakfast a couple of hours ago, I wolfed them both down. For plastic aeroplane food it was really tasty. By the time I had finished eating we were flying over Copenhagen. It was a very clear day, and we could see quite a bit of the Danish coastline. The pilot gave us a weather report of St. Petersburg and said it was -6C, with a chance of light snow. Only an hour and a half left, and I caught up with this journal whilst Julie played Tetris on the Gameboy, with Robbie Williams blaring from her Walkman.
Incidentally, Tetris was created by a Russian, Alexey Pajitnov, whilst he worked at the Moscow Academy of Sciences! That nugget may be useful in a pub quiz one day!
Julie and I spent sometime doing a crossword puzzle. Again she looked calm, even appearing to enjoy looking out the window, "Oh look, there's Denmark" but all the time her thoughts of 'worse case scenarios' were frantically whizzing around.
Some 15 minutes before landing the cabin crew handed out customs declaration forms for us to fill in. We had to declare how much cash we're bringing into the country, and whilst in Russia, remembering to keep the Bureau de Change receipts to prove that we exchanged cash, and that we didn't leave the country with more than what we came in. I guess ensuring that we had no intention of smuggling into the country a suitcase full of Levi jeans and making a killing!
I also had to declare that I had a 'High Frequency Radio or Method of Communications' because I had a mobile phone. I was slightly concerned that declaring something would delay us further in going through customs and passport control, but I still ticked the box. I would rather be delayed than be in any trouble with the authorities for not declaring my mobile phone! And in any case, it was my 'dart launcher parker pen' and 'secret recording devices hidden in my shoe' that I wanted to keep quiet about! (Just in case members of the secret service are reading this, that was a joke by the way!)
As we were coming in to land, it was dark, but we could see that all the fields were covered in snow. Julie had Robbie Williams trumpeting down her ears, and she was getting more agitated. The elephant tranquilisers had worn off. We touched down, and there was an almighty noise as the engines must have been put into reverse thrust to slow us down. It took quite sometime to come to a stop, but stop we did, to Julie's huge relief. No reaching for the sick bag this time though, so the drugs must have made some difference!
Welcome to Russia!
Next I expected a delay to go through the red tape of customs, but the biggest delay was in our luggage collection. Our flight, and an Air France flight had arrived around the same time, and both planes luggage was put onto the same, tiny carousel. A frenzied scrum occurred as people jostled for position next to the conveyor belt. Twenty minutes later I stepped away from the front line and sat down with Julie for a break. I then saw what looked like mine go past, so I had to excuse my way back to the front explaining that I had just seen mine. When it came around again I was relieved to find that it was mine. It's just a standard black Carlton hard case, but I've put a few purple markers on the top to differentiate it from all the other standard black Carlton hard cases! Another twenty minutes later and Julie's arrived. It could have been annoying but we refused to get stressed about it. Forty five minutes watching suitcases whiz round and round and round wasn't fun though!
We went down the red channel through customs, showed our form, and they didn't even question the mobile phone declaration. We went straight through, with no problem. We followed the signs for the exit, and walked out into the arrivals lounge, or porta-kabin more like. It was wonderful to walk pass a large crowd, all eagerly anticipating the arrival of their loved ones. Some holding flowers, and smiling, some looking nervous and stony faced. There were also several drivers there for their pick-ups, all holding name boards, all professionally printed, and laminated. None had 'Mr. Owen' though! We had reached the end of the line, and our pick up was not there. I sent Julie back down the line to walk back up in case we missed him. Perhaps he was the one with the flowers?
As Julie walked back up, shaking her head and shrugging after not seeing anyone, she then noticed standing right behind me was this over-sized toddler holding an A4 piece of paper with Mr. Owen crayoned on it.
I didn't care that it wasn't laminated, we were just relieved that he had decided to turn up!
We followed him out of the building and the first breath of Russian air was invigorating. The snow was falling gently, the crisp air was refreshing after being cooped up inside for so long. It was icy underfoot and Julie did not have appropriate footwear to say the least!
It took her an absolute age to reach the kerb side, shimmying along for fear of going arse over tit.
The driver suggested we stayed where we were and he'd fetch the car to us, to save Julie the embarrassment of having to walk any further!
It took less than half an hour to reach our hotel. Our first glimpse of Russia was one of neon signs and fur coats, with most drivers having to rely on a sixth sense to know where the white lines existed as either there were none, or at least the snow and ice hid them. With four lanes of traffic without any lines, I'm just glad that I wasn't driving! I spent most of the time trying to decipher road signs and shop fronts from Cyrillic, and I realised that I had forgotten more than I had remembered.
As we turned into St. Isaac's Square we marvelled at the cathedral, all lit up.
The Hotel Astoria was overlooking this impressive building. We pulled up outside, and I felt awful because I had not exchanged any US dollars into Roubles, so I could not tip the driver.
As soon as our suitcases were placed on the kerb an eager bell boy picked them up and whisked them inside the Astoria. If he was looking for a good tip he picked the wrong cases!
We checked in, and were taken to our room by a member of staff, immediately followed by bell boy wonder. The girl showed us to our room, and showed us the facilities, in "game show" fashion. Here is the bed, and these are your curtains, here is the mini bar and safe, and (in case we couldn't find them) through here are the toilet and bathroom.
After the show she and the bell boy hovered briefly, at which silence I felt so guilty that I had to apologise to them about not tipping because I hadn't any roubles. Ever enterprising, the bell boy offered his services to change some dollars. I'm sure he even winked at me and said we can 'shake on it'. I remember reading that when you exchange money you should be given an official receipt, so I politely declined his kind offer, not wishing to get into any rouble trouble!
The room was amazing, very large and spacious, with a huge bed, and beautiful parquet flooring. The entrance hallway was large enough to sleep in!
From our window we could see over the roof tops, and the golden spire of the Admiralty. We couldn't fully open the window however, just a small opening for ventilation. It was effectively two windows, and exterior and an interior.
It certainly insulated well as it was at least -6C outside, but plenty warm and cosy inside.
We phoned home. I spoke to my Dad and checked the result of the United game. (We beat West Ham 3-0! Come On!! ) and had a very brief hello 'n goodbye with my mother. Hannah had gone to Bangor for the day. Julie then phoned her mum, but there was no answer, so she left a message. A minute later our mobile phone rang and it was her mum phoning back. At £1 per minute it was expensive but worth it! At 7pm (local time) Julie went to sleep, whilst I watched, of all films, 'Airplane', (the spoof disaster movie with a guitar playing nun). It was all in Russian but still funny! And what a coincidence! After catching up with this journal, I also caught up on some sleep.
We both woke up at around 9:30pm, a little hungry. I popped downstairs to collect our passports after they registered us with the appropriate authorities, and I also needed to confirm an excursion I booked over the internet with the concierge Svetlana. She told me that our English speaking guide was called Nina, and if we could be at the desk for 10am on Monday. And finally I popped outside, next door to the Hotel Angleterre to the Bureau de Change and changed $330 for 10,230 roubles. I didn't get anything official looking, like an exchange receipt, only a standard receipt printed from a cashiers till. I didn't worry too much about it however.
I was back in the room by 10pm, and we ordered room service. Julie ordered Chicken and Chips, and I went for Chinese Vegetable Rolls with a Beetroot Couscous. Whilst we waited I watched BBC World news and saw the three United goals scored by Solskjaer, Veron (a delightful freekick) and on own goal. We also phoned home again to give my father the hotel's number, and to check if Hannah had arrived back home safely. Unfortunately room service knocked on the door as soon as I started talking to Hannah, and I had to cut the conversation short. She sounded disappointed that I had to go before even having a chance to let me know about her day, but the draw of the food was too much for me to resist. As I had roubles in my pocket I had no excuse not too tip, so I handed over 50 roubles, (about £1) the lucky devil! The food was delicious, a bit expensive, but much appreciated.
Lights went out around midnight, but it took me a further hour before my mind switched off, and got to sleep.