Wednesday 27th August, putatively a birthday..
... but it bears NO resemblance to any birthday I’ve ever had. I think my idea to postpone it until the festive mood strikes is a good one.
M is out of hospital, laden with medical documents, advice and consolation. Unfortunately our bus to Tallinn IS the 4.45pm, so we spent the day at the dear old Hotel Sonata, resting and packing and preparing to leave. This didn’t include lunch, because we were sleeping, and that was a mistake. We got to the bus station in plenty of time, shoved our bags into the bus, fell into our seats, and set off on time. I had just enough time to nip over to a kiosk to get a couple of bottles of cold drink, no food.
The road from the outskirts of St Petersburg to the Estonian border is a bastard. It’s been mangled by trucks and half-heartedly repaired so often it is a mass of patches, potholes and crumbling edges. We jolt along for a couple of hours and I feel my back beginning to give... there are a few 5 minute stops along the way, we gather from the evidence that these are mainly to allow the driver to have a smoke! I ran into a cafe at one stop and bought two little Russian pastries, rather like pasties actually - a folded pastry cover with meat and onions inside. I *think* the driver told me I wasn’t allowed to eat them on the bus, as I climbed back on, but me no speaka de Russky, so I just smiled angelically at him and marched back to my seat. We devoured them, following them with ‘dessert’ which was a few sweet biccies M had souvenired from his hospital meals. A bottle of cold drink each and that was it for the supplies.
It took about an hour to get through the border: it goes like this:
Bus pulls up; Russian announcement. Our new friend Dmitri Nikolai, in the seat in front of us, turns to explain that we have to get off, collect all our luggage from the bus, and get in the border security queue. Okay. We do this, trying our best to look like overladen but harmless Aussies lost in a vast land. M goes through before me, and I am relieved to hear the double thump of the stamps which means he’s got through. Then it’s my turn, I do my best to look exactly like my dire passport photo - stern, tired and jowly. No problem, the way I feel... the security guard, a woman, gives me several fierce, piercing looks, then thumbs through my passport as she subjects it to x-ray, ultraviolet light, foreign germ de-bugger, suspicious woman in fake-o Georgio Armani t-shirt dag-alert detektor, ... but she’s unable to find anything to object to and I get the double-thump stamps too and I’m through. We load all our stuff back onto the bus, ourselves into the bus, and we drive 50 metres.... and repeat, at the Estonian border security. Dang.
This is slightly different - we are herded into a shed, which includes a huge jack for lifting up a car to inspekt its underneaths. Once we’re all in, a guard hits a button and a huge automatic garage door arrangement squeaks its way down, preventing us from leaving (running screaming back into the demarcation zone, over a cold river full of anglers ready to cast flies into your ankles...). We both have to have our bags inspekted - the guard looking through my backpack has quite good English, and she smiles as I ‘demonstrate’ my knitting! She asked me what was in my cases, I told her the harmless truth - purrsonal possessions. I had the nous to tell her that we were on a long trip; that’s why we have so much luggage. That was all she needed to hear. But M had to open both his cases, and there seemed to be some bother over his mobile phone (purrhaps the guard thought they were Duty Free, although what difference that would have made, since we weren’t trying to claim anything...). I told the guard I’d bought them for A$100 each, which I think is a big lie, but it was enough for him to nod and allow us through.
The bus was full, so there were perhaps 50 people who had to go through this process. It was pretty slick, for those numbers. But what a drag.. twice... oh well. This don’t feel very birthday-like to me. The ONLY positive thing I can think of (apart from being allowed to LEAVE RUSSIA, which means our extended visas were ok, thank all de lawds and gods) is that I didn’t have to open my cases and have someone ferreting through me smalls, like happened to me in the Beijing Customs Hall with quantities of your average Chinese citizen watching in fascination as my gooby old knickers went on display... geez I blushed that day..well, says she defensively, if YOU had been hand-washing yer smalls in Beijing tap water for three months, yours would be grey, tattered and ratty as well! Beijing tap water has to be approached with extreme caution, a small whip, and a strong arm.
So, we take off again, onto a smooth young well-made highway. The lack of bumps is a mercy. M is bothering me a bit with some marital faffing.. suddenly, I think “In 10 years I’ll be 60”. I go all speechless and have to shut my eyes for a bit. This doesn’t feel very celebratory either... I give up and go to sleep. Some people have left the bus now, so there’s room for M to take over a pair of seats across the aisle, giving us a lot more space. And getting him out of range of any loose lips or wifely biffo of any kind, ahem...
Dmitri helped us retrieve our bags at the Tallinn bus station (he’s a Russian Estonian), find a taxi, and ended up sharing the taxi with us cos his home is further along the same way, sort of, as our hotel. So we have a purrsonal escort to the L’Hermitage Hotel. He’s a charming fellow and we’re very grateful for his help, especially at the Russian border, when he stood by in case there were kvestions from the security people. A very nice bloke. He had started a conversation with us when we were loading our umpteen backpacks etc into the bus, because he recognised our Aussie accents. Turns out he’d been a merchant seaman and had lived in 3 different Aussie cities for 10 months in all, before turning into some kind of electrician who helps set up server rooms and suchlike.
Checking in is easy; they recognise us as ‘the Aussies who were delayed by misfortune’. But the bloody hotel restaurant has just closed (at 11pm Tallinn time; 12 in St P time). The local cafe which used to stay open til 12 is shut. DAMN. I’d kill for a bowl of soup or pasta. The receptionist tells us we can walk up the hill (up???? I don’t think so) to the Old City, where we can find plenty of cafes. We just can’t manage it, M is dropping.. he only got out of hospital this morning,after all. My back is aching, my will is weak, and I’m dying equally badly for a shower. I just want a hot drink. No kettle in ze room, and no chance of me getting into the kitchen a la Sonata (which was just a kitchen in a corner of the reception/breakfast room, just like a normal home kitchen).
I have to take our substantial pile of laundry down to reception so we can get it back tomorrow afternoon. And I spy, with my little tired old eye, a coffee machine. And lo, it came to pass that the darling receptionist, a Sonata-strength dear slip of a girl, one Johanna Lind, made me a latte. Sigggggghhhhhh. I drink it with alternate sips of a gin and tonic, my one concession to a celebratory birdy gesture. [Michael is off the turps until 11 September, as part of ze post-hospital treatment. Today is the 6th day of this abstentive oeriod only 15 days to go - but who’s counting!!..2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!!!!...
[And I should tell you, the girls at the Hotel Sonata were in a lather as we were leaving, wanting us to wait 5 more minutes. Turns out they’d been plotting - they’d seen it was my birdy and had sent a deputation out to find me a gift! I’m so touched; this is on a par with Kirsi and her hand-picked cloudberries. Wow. I feel very special. When I opened the parcel later, on the bus, there was a card telling me I was a ‘perfect guest’ (I was??? I thought I’d been quite demanding. Interesting.); and two gifts. One is a little replica statue of (we think) the Freedom and Democracy Angel; the other is a very beautiful black with 24 carat gold trim and print mug, which has a little infusion-bowl inset, and a lid. All my trips out to the kitchen to make coffee in our plunger has clearly impressed them with my burning need! It’s a very kind gesture, and we all exchange Russian hugs and kisses (one on each cheek) and M enthusiastically joins in, heh. I feel quite teary as we leave; these women have made my time alone SO much easier.
Peoples is good. Look at what Dmitri did for us today, unstintingly.
Today brought to you by early blasts of Chanel No. 5; rather a lot of eau de fairly old Russian bus; and my mercy-latte.
Tomorrow we have only one plan - sleep; get up for breakfast; sleep again. I hope by Friday we are ert enough to actually do and see a few things. On Saturday, at 10 am, we get on another bus (I hope slightly less aged) to Riga.
One last thing: as I was charging off at 8am to meet M at the hospital, I saw my third Russian cat. It was a beautiful grey tabby with white whiskers, completely sacked out on the steps of a local cafe. I mean TOTALLY sacked out, no blandishments or hopeful conversation from me was gonna wake dat cat up. I can only assume that brekkie via the cafe kitchen had been a highly successful arrangement. Trust a cat to achieve that!
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