“Look into the yellow light” said my new Finnish friend with whom I talked for 4 of the 9 hours of flight time from SFO to LHR (London Heathrow). As usual, I had last minute excitement boarding the huge double decker British Airways plane in SFO ( acrononym BA meant something else when I was a kid ;>). I got in the wrong line to board (they told me either would do) and ended up in the bottom level of the plane. I was told I needed to go back to get on the top level, and that they had to escort me for security purposes. I wondered what kind of security risk I posed having had my boarding pass and passport scanned half a dozen times at that point. I conceded and let them lead me to the top deck, just as the stewardess began shutting the portal. She stopped and I jumped on, relieved to have made it. I’d gotten to the airport with ample time to spare (2 hours early), spent an hour looking at the Egyptian revival exhibit, and which described the Egyptomania that swept the west in the 1800s when archaeological discoveries from Egypt were made known, and which was reignited in the 1920s when Howard Carter discovered King Tutenkamen’s tomb completely intact. They had photos of Egyptian-influenced architecture, Turns out the newly issued passports have some kind of chip in them so that you can echeck your passport by sliding it under a scanner and look at a yellow square which performs some kind of biometric check – retinal scan, facial feauture/shape check? Whatever it was examining, I passed inspection and skipped the long line for passport control.
I slept for an hour or 2 on the plane, and when we arrived in London, my friend showed me how to get an oyster card on the tube (or underground). It took 1 1/2 hours to get out of the airport – I didn’t have much daylight and had to return to the airport at 6am the next morning, so I was eager to walk around. We went to my hostel, located in Earl’s Court, and I dropped my things and then followed the great Finn (whose name I never got – I gave him my email but I think he typed it in wrong because I never got his email) to Green Park, an area near Buckingham Palace. We bid farewell and I walked quickly to see the guards in the front of the palace, parliament buildings, Westminster Abbey (a guard let me enter the inner cloister even though it was officially closed because he was impressed with my knowledge of cloisters). I saw a door that indicated it led to the abbey and I pulled it – it was closed, but a priest opened it and I asked if there was a service and he said yes. I came in, listened to the boys choir and gazed up into the endless rafters. I didn’t want to spend the last hour of sun inside, so after a time excused myself and withdrew. On my way out I saw a tribute to FDR – curious. Many old grave markers lined the inner courtyard, the earliest I saw dating from the 1600s.
I fell in love with the tulips in St James Park across from the palace. Apparently a canal had been dug for a British king in the 1800s, and he swam daily and visited his pet ducks and swans. It is now a pond surrounded by gardens, and the tulips were fairly exploding with color. I’ve never seen such a variety of flower shape and color as I did there. Sadly I hadn’t brought my camera so took photos with my eyes. I asked 2 Brits about the house of lords – they said it was made of limestone mixed with iron (it has the look of sandstone) and sits right on the Thames next to Big Bend. They said there are at least 13 bars inside the house, and that people used to be able to just walk right in (they had when they were kids) but no longer since the fear of terrorism. There are now 2 concrete walls/separators between the parliament and the road to keep vans filled with explosives from careening into the building. I walked cross the bridge and viewed the government buildings from the other side of the Thames. There were 20 or so TV news cameras poised on the buildings, with anchor men and women ready to give a desription of the upcoming elections (taking place 2 days hence). I explored the arbishop’s gardens and church yard nearby, and walked along the esplanade past the Eye to the next pedestrian bridge. I walked through the “Strand” (an area along the government building side of the Thames with a narrow parkway filled with gardens and fountains. Hunger drew me up to the street above, as I hopefully followed one woman with a Chinese pork bun. I ducked into a grocery store and bought a pre-made sandwich, and self-paid. I got to St Paul’s Cathedral just as it began pealing and clanging noisily. I saw the only arch still standing of the city gates (called the Temple Bar), checked out a trendy area on the river that had a glassed in bar near a designer hostel, and then made my way to the Barcutha section of downtown and the tube. On the way I wandered into the Ironmongers Hall and asked the security guard about the building. He told me it was an old guild hall of the iron sellers (monger meant seller) that had been built in 1925 after a fire destroyed their previous buidling from the 1600s. It was a handsome building, and boasted a lovely solid wood fireplace mantel similar to the one I saw at the De Young created for the Bohemian club in Woodside. He gave me a pamphlet of the history, and then I wandered to the tube.
Sleep-deprived, I made it back to the hostel by 9;30pm. I got caught in a political discussion (America-bashing, actually) with an Australian who was extremely sarcsatic and bitter. Though I agreed with his criticisms and made plenty of my own, I tired of feeling like I too was being bashed. He said that what he loved most was America’s surveillance of its citizens. I finally excused myself and collapsed on a mattress on the floor. I had the luck to get a 4 bedroom room to myself, and was so unused to sleep that I woke up in a panic every 2 hours thinking I’d missed my flight. At 5:30am I awoke, attempted to check in online (and succeeded), then gathered my things and made my way to the tube and the airport. I arrived with 2 hours to spare, had to go to visa control (because I was flying into Moscow). After a few phone calls and checking, they said I didn’t need a transit visa but couldn’t leave the airport. That was sad news because I’d hoped to visit Moscow, especially as the 70th anniversary of Victory Day on May 9 was fast approaching and the parades of tanks and troops would be quite a spectacle. I boarded the plane to Moscow and tried to find a seat that had an empty one next to it, but got found out by the stewardess. I then moved to a more comfortable section with bigger seats, thinking that I’d not be seen, but again was asked to take my seat. Ah well – I tried to get a bit more but nothing doing. The great outcome was that a very kind man was sitting next to my assigned seat and we ended up having a great 4 hour conversation about everything from bioremediation with oyster mushrooms to Monsanto’s nepharious spread of GMO and terminator seeds, to Rick’s experiences doing business in Russia (he works for a company that quarries rock and later remediates the area). He has a 500 acre farm which he purchased in 2005, and lives 20 minutes from Bath. He taught me some Russian, suggested that I visit Sochi and other places in Russia along the Red Sea, encouraging me to apply for a 30 day tourist visa. It was lovely looking out the window on the descent, lot of rural farms (corn?) and small villages with brightly colored houses. Moscow proper by contrast seemed devoid of any individuality and was populated by a host of giant concrete apartment buildings. I was eager to explore Russia, though he noted that driving was not recommended as there are many potholes on the roads, people drive very fast, and sometimes careen into others.
When I arrived in the Moscow airport, I was unpleasantly surprised that people were as officious and bureacratic as I’d imagined. They almost didn’t let me into the departing flights lounge, and I wondered what Edward Snowden did to survive his 50 plus day stay at one of the 3 Moscow airports. I asked if I could sit with Rick in the domestic lounge but was denied, and finally was allowed to proceed to the small departure lounge. My first challenge was finding a water faucet (they had made me dump all my water upon entering, in addition to checking my passport photo against my face for several long minutes in apparent disbelief. Almost no one spoke any English, even when I said voda (water in Russian), and offered to pay for it. One guy said it was not possible and implied it was not potable. I finally asked an airline personnel who took pity on me (she said I could buy water but I explained that I had no rubles and there are no ATM machines here). She disappeared and came back 10 minutes later with full bottles, which made the next 22 hours bearable. I searched for an airport lounge, hoping I could pay my way for a modicum of comfort. Unfortunately, the only one I found that was open was $15/hour, 240 for an overnight stay. And I wouldn’t be able to lie down. I decided that that was much too dear, and surrendered to uncomfortable chairs (which prevent lying down) and extremely loud, constant (every minute) announcements. I wondered if I’d go crazy during my stay here. After sitting for a while, I went to a snack place and ordered some borsch, which I am familiar with and have always loved. I met Anders, a very nice man from Moldova (apparently Romanian is the closest language to Moldovan). We tried to communicate in Russian – I would look up phrases and speak and he would respond. He showed me the beautiful ceiling and wall decorations that he paints in Moscow where he works. He was heading home for a 5 day vacation to visit his wife and 2 daughters. I wondered how hard life must be there that he has to go 1000 miles away in order to find work. He was much friendlier than the rather dour (and seemingly petulant) Russians that were working in the terminal).
I wondered if Moldovans were more friendly as a culture, or if Russian airport workers were cranky because of too little pay or some other reason. I found a few women who were helpful, and decided to assume that crankiness should not be taken personally. After a nice conversation with Anders, I returned to a waiting area and watched a bit of TV coverage about victory day. There was some interesting old footage from the war, as well as interviews with 90+ year old men and women patriots who had been there. I felt like I got exposed to a wide cross section of Russian citizens as well as those of satellite countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazastan, Moldova, and Ukraine. I watched parents with their kids, people patiently waiting for too many hours, and refected on what Rick had said about Russians being good at moving on and not making a fuss over things that others would be in an uproar about. I admired their stolid patience and assume it came from years of hard living. It reminded me of many other countries I’d been (including Turkey, Mexico, Poland – places where people still had hard lives and did not seem to feel entitled to an easier life). My eyes started closing at 9pm, and I took some melatonin hoping I might miraculously sleep. I curled up behind the chairs on the floor and rested for an hour or so, then decided to try to find a quieter corner, as the announcements had become so loud that they were burning a hole in my brain (even with my best earplugs shoved firmly in place). I succeeded in finding a lounge further away from the speakers, and laid my weary head on my backpack as a security measure. The hard floor seemed to bore a hole in my left arm, and I struggled to find a position that did not cause shooting pain. Exhaustion set in, and I awoke realizing that I had somehow fallen asleep. I watched the sunrise at 4:45 am, treated myself to a soft serve ice cream and orange juice, and began writing to try to pass the 8 more hours before my flight would depart (if all went well).