This journal documents my activities, observations and thoughts on a tour of Baltic area countries, May 31 to June 7, 2009. I sent my specification that I wanted to visit the five cities and take a sightseeing tour of each city in a compressed timeframe to five Travel Companies that were listed on the internet as specializing in Baltic tours. Daina Kontrima from Baltic Travel Company, London, United Kingdom (Daina@baltictravelcompany.com), sent me the best proposal. She arranged for all flights, trains, hotels (including breakfast), sightseeing and transfers. She also arranged for the sponsors I needed in Kaliningrad and Minsk for my visa applications and even provided draft answers to the Russian and Belarusian visa applications. The only glitch in her arrangements was a change in Air Baltic’s flight schedule from Kaliningrad from daily to every other day service which necessitated the substitution of a train ride from Kaliningrad to Vilnius at the last minute. The focus of the tour for me was to visit each of the Baltic Countries and their neighbors: Belarus, Poland and the Kaliningrad state of the Russian Federation. On a previous cruise I had visited Tallinn, Estonia so I skipped Estonia on this tour. The tour was a post trip to my May 2009 ms Rotterdam cruise from New York to Rotterdam.
· Fly from Amsterdam to Riga, Latvia
· Spend two nights in Riga
· Take a Public Riga City Tour
· Fly from Riga to Kaliningrad and spend the night
· Take a Private Kaliningrad City tour
· Take a train from Kaliningrad to Vilnius, Lithuania and spend the night
· Take a Public Vilnius City Tour
· Take a train to Minsk and spend the night
· Take a Private Minsk City tour
· Fly from Minsk to Warsaw and spend the night
· Take a Public Warsaw City tour
· Fly from Warsaw to Amsterdam and spend the night
· Fly from Amsterdam to Los Angeles via Chicago
May 31, 2009 (Sunday) Fly – Amsterdam to Riga, Latvia
I was dropped off at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, by a bus from the Holland America ms Rotterdam cruise. The Holland America Coordinator had no idea which terminal Baltic Air flew from so I went in with the crowd going to the US into the terminal building. The airport has free strong trolleys and I found out that Baltic Air departs from the “European” terminal a good distance from the drop off point. I needed to go to Baggage Storage first and that was in the same general direction but down three levels. Once I found it the agent told me my cheapest option was to store the bags in a locker. Both bags fit into a locker with room for more. You close the door and stick your credit card in a slot and they print a receipt with a bar code on it that you use in a scanner that will open the locker when you return. Pretty slick!
I was surprised that when we arrived in Rotterdam that I did not receive any messages on my Blackberry, so my next venture was to find a cell phone store to see what I am doing wrong. I came upon a Business Center and asked the girl there if she had any experience with Blackberry phones and she asked me if I had Verizon Service. Apparently there has been a problem all weekend with the Vodafone NL, Blackberry service. She directed me to a couple of Mobil Phone stores, both confirmed Blackberry problems this weekend.
Next step was to find my check in desk. It turned out to be the last desk in the terminal and is shared by a number of airlines. Baltic Air would not be manning the desk until 12:05. It was only 10:05. With all the restaurants in the terminal I got hungry and tried to buy a Burger King version of an Egg McMuffin. They didn’t sell breakfast items so I had a whopper with cheese – delicious. I used the table to sit and read for an hour or so and then relocated to the check in counter area. At noon, people started to line up, so I joined them and was checked in at 12:10 and was to go to the gate at 13:50. Security was unusual because there was no line and we didn’t have to remove our shoes, but I did have to remove my belt, hat and laptop. When I set off the alarm there was a man right there to pat me down and then wand me (in the US they do it in reverse – wand then pat).
I tried to get in the Lufthansa Lounge but it is subcontracted to Servico and I needed a ticket on Lufthansa to get in. I found another restaurant area to sit and read. The smell of food got to me so about 13:30 I broke down and got in line for a sandwich. While waiting I saw a make your own salad bar so I took that option and to drink I selected my old favorite German beer, Bitburger “bitte ein bit”!
When I finished I realized that I was a long way from the gate. It took me almost 15 minutes to get to the gate and there was no plane or people at the gate. Out the window I saw a Baltic Air plane at a different gate so I headed there and discovered that there had been a gate change. I arrived just as they were announcing check in so I was just on time. I was assigned 6D with no one next to me. They held us in a lounge area for 15 minutes and then we boarded and sat on the plane with hot air for 50 minutes (Air Traffic delay) before we pushed back and it took another 15 minutes to take off at 15:15.
The flight took two hours and five minutes, so we were on the plane for almost three hours and I got some sleep. In-flight service was a little different, they charged for not only the food but even the drinks on the flight. My meal was a salmon salad on Swedish bread with a beer. The food tasted great and the beer was in a large can.
The car service was late picking me up at the airport and a large group was checking in at the hotel when I arrived but eventually I got to my room. It has a good WI-FI connection and Blackberry service. The room is adequate with two beds. I plugged in my extension cord and all my electrical equipment: two cell phone charges, the CPAP machine, camera battery charger and an alarm clock. The later blew the circuit backer and produced a burning smell. The plug was only for 110v and burned out. I swear I had used that clock in 220v countries on previous trips. I called the front desk and they had the power back in just a few minutes.
I spent several hours on the internet reading lengthy message attachments I had saved that I couldn’t read on my Blackberry, tracked the Red Sox game and answered some emails. The time zone had changed again so I was now 10 hours ahead of LA time.
I finally quit and turned out the light at 23:00.
Jun 01, 2009 (Monday) Riga, Latvia
During the night I was still getting the feeling that I was on the ship. The bed was much softer than on the cruise ship, but I sleep soundly until the sunrise around 04:30 woke me up. I stayed in bed determined to get eight hours sleep and as the sun got brighter I woke several times until I finally got out of bed at 06:45. The shower was small but it had hot water – no wash cloth or shampoo. There was a liquid soap dispenser in the shower and over the wash basin.
Breakfast was included in the hotel fee and it was in a building next door joined with a covered archway. It was the typical hotel buffet breakfast. I had a slice of cheese, a slice of ham, scrambled eggs with pieces of meat, fresh chucks of tomato and an orange.
My tour was scheduled to start at 12:10 at the Powder Tower several blocks from the hotel. I decided to walk over to find the tower. It was a absolute beautiful warm morning without a cloud in the sky. Old Town Riga is very picturesque and I took a lot of pictures of narrow cobblestone streets, old buildings, monuments, a river in a park, their first McDonald’s and several clock towers. I found the tower and walked past the old city wall, past a park with outside restaurants and back to the hotel. Back in the room I checked email and wrote in my journal.
At 11:30 I started out again to rendezvous with my Riga City Tour. I met the tour guide named Dzintra. There were two ladies from Germany with her and we were to pick up two women from Australia along the way. The tour had three parts:
1. A walking tour of Old Town Riga with a guide
2. A Bus Tour of the rest of the city with an audio guide
3. A Latvian meal
Background on Latvia: It is the middle country of the three Baltic Countries both in size and in location. It is south of Estonia, and larger then Estonia, north of Lithuania and smaller than Lithuania. It has a population of 2,231,503 (and 2,217,000 cell phones!).
The ethnic breakdown is:
· Latvian: 57.7%
· Russian: 29.6%
· Belarusian: 4.1%
· Ukrainian: 2.7%
The religious breakdown is:
· Lutheran: 19.6%
· Orthodox: 15.3%
· Unspecified: 63.7%
The languages breakdown is:
· Latvian: 58.2%
· Russian: 37.5%
GDP composition by sector is:
· Agriculture: 3.3%
· Industry: 22.3%
· Services: 74.4%
The first attraction was the Jacob’s Barracks, three long yellow buildings built in the 18th Century at the foot of the city’s fortification wall. At the end of the Barracks the coat of arms for all the towns and cities in Latvia are displayed. We walked along Basteja bulvaris. Across the street were the ruins of the first fortification. I had strolled through the park earlier and it had beautiful flowing water down from the old ruins and women were sun bathing on the lawn in bathing suits while little boys played in the flowing water troughs and the rocks around them.
We walked past the Freedom Monument, symbol of Latvian independence. When I visited the monument in the morning two solders marched in unison with a very deliberate goose step back and forth in front of the monument. They change every hour but do not march when the temperature is above 20°C which was the case when we passed by in the afternoon.
We walked past the National Opera and around the corner picked up the two women from Australia. Around a corner from their hotel is a street that is low and at one time the water flowed in the area. I was surprised to see us walking up to my hotel. The street that runs in front of my hotel used to be next to the river. The Hotel Konventa Seta is named after the convent that used to occupy the hotel buildings. There are eight buildings in the complex and in back is St. Peter’s Church which was originally constructed in 1209. As we walked down from the church we past a T.G.I Friday’s and entered into Livi Square an interesting complex of 18th Century residential builds as well as guild halls. Opposite one of the Guild halls is a building with a Black Cat with its tail in the air built to show its rear end facing a Guild Hall that the owner of the house had a feud with. Next we entered Dome Square in the heart of Old Riga. The square was created in the 1930’s when a number of very old buildings were torn down. The outlines of their foundations are preserved in the patterns of the stones in the square. A lot of restaurants and bars were located in the buildings along the end of the square.
As we left the square we walked by a beautiful Art Nouveau decorated building. One third of Riga’s city center is built in Art Nouveau style some designed by Mikhail Eisenstein father of the famous Russian film maker, Sergei Eisenstein. The next attraction was Ratslaukum’s Square (Town Square) . The square was destroyed in World War II but many of its building have been restored to their original form including the House of Blackheads. The original House was built in the 14th Century and belonged to the Guild of Unmarried Merchants. At the time it was the richest and most prestigious venue in the city.
This ended the walking tour and there is no doubt that a tour bus could have navigated the narrow streets of Old Riga. The German ladies and I boarded the bus and left our guide and the Aussies behind. The bus tour had head phones and the driver set of the language of choice for each seat for an audio guide. We started out by crossing the Daugava River by the Akmens Bridge. We stopped for a photo op of the Old Town skyline and then passed by a large park with a Russian Monument, through the old industrial section of the city across the Vansu Bridge and past the government buildings and embassies, past more Art Nouveau buildings, the rail way station, the Central Market housed in large dirigible hangers and back to the starting point where everyone got off except me. I was driven back to Jacob’s Barracks where the bus stopped and the driver took me to “The Tavern on the Ancient Amber Way” for my 100% Latvian meal.
The meal consisted of a tray with four cups, three with beer from different regions of Latvia and one with a version of Pepsi. On the tray in front of the cups was a piece of black bread with a small pizza and a roll with meat inside. To the right of the bread was a large piece of cabbage with various cheeses on it. Next to the cheese was a hot bowl of grey peas in a special bacon cream sauce. At the extreme end on the right was a small cup of honey.
The waitress came over with a map of Latvia with each province in a different color. She pointed to the province and then to the cup associated with the province and the food associated to the cup. The three beers varied in strength with the one to the extreme right being the strongest because it came from the province that has the border with Russia. The first cup of beer was to be drunk while eating the pizza looking item which turned out to be on the sweet side and the red was not tomato but I think sweet potato with melted cheese over it and a honey flavor to the crust. The second cup of beer was a little stronger and was supposed to be drunk while eating the black bread. The strong beer was supposed to be drunk with the cheese. The roll was supposed to be dipped in the honey and the peas eaten with any of the cups and finished off with the “Pepsi”. I finished all the liquid, cheese, honey and most of the black bread and peas and staggered back to my hotel for a nap. It was helpful that I had passed by the restaurant in my morning walk and knew the route generally to my hotel.
Jun 02, 2009 (Tuesday) Fly - Riga, Latvia to Kaliningrad, Russian Federation
Well, I didn’t get an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep. Around 04:00 I awoke to what sounded like air in a radiator which seemed odd since it had been a warm evening. A minute of two later there was a pelting of a rain squall against my window. I returned to sleep but was awaken several more times by the rain. At 06:00 I heard the sound of someone sweeping the water away from a door in the courtyard below. Determined to sleep until 08:00 I set an alarm and soon fell back to sleep and awoke again at 07:48. This time I got up, showered, shaved and changed my bandages.
Breakfast was a little large for me since I was not sure what was in store for me the rest of the day. My pick up was scheduled for 11:00 and it was estimated to take only 20 minutes to drive to the airport. My flight to Kaliningrad was scheduled for 13:30. I had a fresh tomato, some scrambled eggs, a slice of ham and cheese, and a couple of pieces of toast. Of course I had my daily orange and hot tea.
After breakfast I took some close up pictures of a sign that described the history of the buildings that made up the hotel so I could expand the journal entry with more accuracy. After that, I returned to my room and finished packing – it was tougher to cram everything into the carry on size roll-a-board than it was on the ship.
I checked out and settled the beer charge with €3 and as I turned the driver walked in with my name. There was construction on the street in front of the hotel so we had to walk a block to where he had parked his car. It was tricky getting out of the old town because so much construction blocked many of the streets. The drivers name was Mickey and he travels a lot. The next day he was flying to Portugal with some friends to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It took twenty minutes to reach the airport. There was a long line to check bags at the Baltic Air counters and only two agents were on duty. I counted at least 40 people in front of me but I had two hours before my flight departed so I was not concerned. All of a sudden three more agents appeared and the line started to move. Once I got my boarding pass I looked around for something to kill time. I checked my pass and discovered that it did not have a gate identified so I stopped at the first class agent to see if she knew which gate. She made a call and told me it was C2 which was at the end of the terminal. When I walked down there it was not busy. There was a T.G.I. Friday’s at the very end. I asked an agent if there were places to eat past security. She recommend that I have lunch on this side of security, in the restaurant upstairs. She also confirmed that no meal would be sold on the short flight to Kaliningrad. The elevator for the upper level was at the opposite end of the terminal so I pushed my cart down there and after a little trouble was able to get to the second floor and the Lido Restaurant. It served buffet style a heavy native lunch with meat and potatoes. I decided to return to T.G.I. Friday’s and have a lighter lunch.
I had an iced tea and bowl of broccoli and cheese soup. Now I was ready to go through security. I had to remove my belt and watch, the laptop from my bag and my hat. As soon as I set off the buzzer a man came over and started the pat down and then wanded me. He had a lot of trouble with the rivets in my blue jeans but eventually Okayed me to proceed.
The gate was downstairs and it was a bus departure gate. At 13:00 they started to process our flight. I got on the bus in five minutes but we sat there for fifteen minutes waiting for all the passengers to board. The plane was a Fokker 50 and I had my laptop backpack with me and I was concerned that it might not fit in the overhead. Two men in front of me left their bags at the bottom of the stairs so I did the same. There is a large closet in the front of Fokkers and they stored our bags in it. I was assigned window seat 9A next to a young man from Uzbekistan who spoke no English. We had free soft drinks on the flight and we had to fill out a Russian Arrival and a Departure card.
We took off at 13:36 and on climb out the Latvia countryside looked beautiful with lots of pine woods and cultivated fields. In twenty minutes we started to descend over low grassland, uncultivated and with few groves of trees and then we flew over a large body of water which I learned later is the Curonian Lagoon which was separated from the Baltic Sea by the Curonian Split. Upon landing we taxied to what appeared to be a remote part of the airport and had a long walk to a small building with no sign. My laptop bag was at the bottom of the stairs and I followed the crowd around the side of the building and in a door where three women greeted us. On my left was a cute blond in an Army camouflage uniform but with fancy painted fingernails with sparkles glued on. She would not pass inspection in the US Army. To my right was a woman in civilian clothes asking me a question in Russian after several attempts at English the man behind me told me she was asking if Kaliningrad was my final destination?
This confusion put me at the end of the line for Passport Control which took a long time. Next was Customs which required a screening of my bags and another passport check. There were four people lined up in front of me and about six men in uniform in the room. The screener didn’t like the xray of one of the bags and left his post to have the man open the bag and he spent time searching through it. My back was hurting from standing in these various lines so I sat down on a chair next to the wall. Soon one of the men in uniform came over and motioned to me to use the other baggage scanner which I was wondering all along we hadn’t been directed to use. When I put my bag on the belt the operator started to yell at me and motioned for me to get back in the other line. In a load voice I asked “ Does anyone understood English and if so could they tell me what is going on, I can’t sit down yet no one is processing our line, and one man in uniform tells me to go to another line and the man in uniform tells me to go back what am I supposed to do?” A couple that had been in the other Passport Control line and was speaking English earlier came over and said the first officer had thought I was an outbound passenger when I sat down and the other scanner was for check in only. They understood my confusion and told me they were Russian and they were embarrassed by the inefficient actions at both Passport Control and Customs and they said, “That is Russia!”
Finally I exited the terminal, I was afraid that my commotion would be cause for them to search my bags but they didn’t. One good thing was my Blackberry received email. A gruff man showed up with my name on a sign and I piled my bags into a Ford Station Wagon and we were off to the city. I asked him if he spoke English and he replied “Very little”. Next I asked him how far is the airport from the city? He replied 20 to 26km and just then there was a road sign stating 17km and he pointed to it a little surprised. Just down the road was another sign he pointed out which read 20km to the city. We joked that you could saw 3 km if you drove across the fields.
The country side initially looked poor. As we were leaving this small terminal I could see on the other side of the runway a new fancy terminal under construction and larger Jet aircraft parked on the ramp. I guessed that we must have been at the commuter terminal for prop and propjet size planes. In the area we also passed several buildings in ruins. About half way to the city we passed a large monument with a small church and a number of well maintained old Army tanks. It must be some sort of a memorial. Just down the road we passed through an area with nicely constructed and under construction three story homes on fair size lots. Soon after that it started to rain. It had rained heavy before I woke that morning but there was not a cloud in the sky on the way to the airport or on takeoff. We did encounter some clouds in route but it was clear when we landed. This rain shower sort of came out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly as it came, so by the time we entered the city there was no hint of rain.
My hotel Mokba (Moscow) was past the center of the city across the street from the zoo. It had a plain Russian post war look. They was no drive by front door or doorman or bellhop. There were two receptionists and just my luck I drew the one that didn’t understand a word of English. The room was small with one double bed and barely enough room on either side of the bed to move.
After unpacking I took a stroll around the neighborhood. The Zoo was across the street and was very run down. Up the street was the gates to the football (soccer) stadium and they could use a fresh coat of paint and there was a lot of graffiti on the ticket booths. Along the side of the hotel was a nice looking restaurant. When I returned to the hotel I asked the English speaking receptionist if they had a map of the city and she produced a guide book with an English translation. I then asked her about credit cards. The Gift Shop in the hotel didn’t accept them and I had read that they are not universally accepted in the city. She told me I could settle my bill with a Visa Card.
I then asked her for a recommended restaurant that would be in walking distance and would accept credit cards. She marked an area where I might find a good restaurant on the map and I started out again at 17:00 to scout one out for later. I walked by the place she had marked on the map and didn’t see any restaurants and kept walking taking pictures of monuments, sculptures and interesting looking buildings. I reached what I think is the center of the city with a large plaza (Victory Square) and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with five large gold domes in the Russian Orthodox style.
I had a very negative impression of Kaliningrad starting at the airport and continuing on the sights I saw out the car on the drive in, the hotel, hotel room, the Zoo, Soccer stadium, and the dirty park in the area. As I walked towards Victory Square I was beginning to get a more favorable impression – not up to Riga’s impression but not as negative as in the first few hours.
By 18:00 I was on my way back when across the street from the Soccer stadium I saw a restaurant with a Visa decal on the window. I went in and was seated at a very fancy table and handed an English Menu. An English speaking waiter served me and I ordered the salmon with a mushroom cream sauce with mashed potatoes. I wanted a salad but he steered me away from them for some reason. I ordered a beer and two pieces of bread. After all the walking in the warm weather the beer hit the spot and the bread was warm and delicious with a green butter. When the salmon arrived it was an unbelievable setting. The sauce covered the salmon but did not spill over the side. The mashed potatoes were shaped in a round stack on a bed of lettuce and the top was concaved and filled with melted green butter. A garnish of burned onion skin was on the plate and a burned lemon half. What a presentation!
I decided to splurge and order dessert. I selected the warm chocolate cake with ice cream. Again the presentation blew my socks off. The cake was a round stack much like the shape of the mashed potatoes and set in the lower left corner of a square plate. In the upper right hand corner was the scoop of vanilla ice cream; they were both were sprinkled with white confectionary sugar. In the lower right hand corner were two apricot halves looking like fried egg yolks free of the sugar and in the upper left was an apple shape drawn in chocolate filled with red and yellow sauce. Again I took a picture before I dove in. An outstanding meal!
Next came the downer, they didn’t accept Visa cards. Their machine was broken but they did accept US Dollars. The whole meal with two beers came to $30. My evaluation of Kaliningrad improved a little.
Back down to earth in a hurry. Back in my room I wanted to share this experience over the internet. They had a sign at check in that claimed free Wi-Fi but when I turned on my computer and connected it asked for a Username and Password and had a note to contact the receptionist. When I did contact the receptionist the English speaking one had left and the other one didn’t have a clue and directed me to the Café. The woman in the Café told me WiFi in Moscow is free and I could see people using it in the Café so I lugged my laptop down there to connect. When I got to the lobby I saw the English speaking receptionist was at the desk and I opened my laptop and showed the screen asking for the Username and Password. She told me that I could purchase 1 hour for 50 rubles and that they are forbidden to put the Internet charge on a hotel bill. Since I didn’t have any rubles I decided to call it quits and go to bed.
I retired at 23:00
Jun 03, 2009 (Wednesday) Train - Kaliningrad, Russian Federation to Vilnius, Lithuania
In true Russian style the heavy drapes in my room that matched the bed spread (which is way too large for the bed), are not as wide as the windows, so at first day light I awoke with a light in my eyes. I adjusted the drape and fell back asleep until 06:30. I awoke in a startle thinking I had set the alarm for 06:00 and had slept through it. I showered, shaved and changed my bandage when the alarm went off at 07:00.
Breakfast was the typical hotel buffet style in the Café. I had one sunny side up egg, cheeses, a slice of ham, four tomato quarters, an orange, toast and tea. I returned to my room, brushed my teeth and packed.
After a short journal entry I got ready for my city tour. At 09:00 I met my guide Maria in the lobby. We boarded a Mercedes van driven by Sasha.
We started with a little background on Kaliningrad before we started the tour. Background on Kaliningrad: It is a Seaport and the administrative center of Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. The territory, the northern part of the former East Prussia, borders on NATO and European_Union members Poland and Lithuania, and is geographically separated from the rest of Russia. Originally named Königsberg, the Prussian and German town had been founded in 1255, and was then largely destroyed during World War II. Its ruins were occupied by the Soviet Army in 1945 and it was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 in honor of Mikhail Kalinin.
It has a German background but when it became a part of the Soviet Union after World War II, the Russians pushed out the Germans, replacing them with Russians and destroyed many remnants of the German history, so very few Germans remain. With the large population of Russians there was no big move for independence like the other Baltic States when the USSR broke up. Because it is the only Russian port in the Baltic’s that does not freeze over in winter it is strategically important to the Russian Federation. It is the Headquarters of the Russian Atlantic Navy and has a large population of active and retired Navy personnel. When the Russian’s were expelled from Poland, East Germany, and the Baltic States many of them were relocated to Kaliningrad. It had a very low unemployment rate and it’s low cost made it a popular manufacturing assembly plant for appliances and automobiles. The world recession had caused some of the plants to close and there was a rise in unemployment to 6%. It had a population of 430,003.
The ethnic breakdown is:
· Russian: 77.9%
· Belarusian: 8.0%
· Ukrainian: 7.3%
· Lithuanians: 1.9%
· Germans: 0.6%
· Poles 0.5%
The religious breakdown is not recorded but there has been resurgence in the Russian Orthodox Church attendance. The languages’ breakdown is not recorded but almost everyone speaks Russian and German was the second language taught in school.
When we left the hotel we drove in the opposite direction from my walk the day before, along the west edge of the Zoo into a residential area that Maria said was the best in the city. There were many old stately houses but they were not in great condition and the road was even worse. I was not impressed. Our first stop was at a park with some interesting sculptures and an outdoor theater.
From the park we drove to the next stop which was the Museum of the World Ocean. There they had a 1960’s era diesel submarine that you can tour; several examples of the research submersibles like were used to film the remains of the Titanic, and several large research vessels that are now floating museums. Maria told me she migrated to Kaliningrad because her husband was a fishing captain. She majored in English and German in College. Her speech was a lot more understandable than my guide in Riga.
At the museum it started to rain and continued through the remainder of the tour, hampering my ability to take pictures through the van’s windows. The next stop was the Cathedral. We walked across a bridge to the island where the Cathedral was located. On the canal under bridge lead to a reconstructed fishing village section of Kaliningrad. New apartments were built in historical style.
The Cathedral was no longer an active church but it contained the remains of Duke Albrecht, the Orders Grand Masters, bishops and professor’s of the university. Among the professors was Kaliningrad’s most famous person: philosopher Immanuel Kant. When we initially entered the Cathedral we were ushered into a small chapel where a small (3 men, 3 women) carol group was singing. They had a beautiful sound and we sat there for three songs. Maria knew the leader and told me that they had just returned from a competition that they won in Germany.
Next we climbed stairs to visit a museum displaying a history of the cathedral with pictures of its near destruction in WW II. It stood in ruins for 40 years and Khrushchev sent out orders to demolish what was left of the building during a period when all remnants of German history were destroyed. The University professors convinced him to spare the Cathedral because of Kant’s remains and Kant’s philosophy influenced Marx and Lenin. Up another stair were several floors dedicated to Immanuel Kant.
It was still raining when we exited the Cathedral and drove past several of the 15 gates that surround the city, the train station and other land marks to a stop at the Koenig (King’s) Gate. This gate was recently restored. We drove past the areas I had walked the day before, Victory Square, the Concert hall, the Sport’s Stadium, the Zoo and out to the edge of the city to stop at a fortification that was the location of a major battle between the Russians and Germans in 1945. The citadel was in the shape of a pentagon with a moat and covered with a wooded hill. Reportedly, 300 Germans held their ground for weeks before being defeated by the Russian Army.
After another twenty minutes of residential homes we were back at my hotel. I bid Maria farewell and made arrangements for Sasha to pick me up in the lobby at 18: 00 to go to the train station.
When I got to my room the key would not open the door. There was a new crew at the front desk and they told me that I was not extended to the pickup time and that I had to check out. The called the maid to let me in the room so I could retrieve my luggage. There was no bill, I turned in my key card and they stored my bag in the hotel storage room.
I took my laptop back pack to the Café and found a table with an outlet and discovered that they had free Wi-Fi, so I plugged in and set about to order lunch. The menu had pictures but was confusing. I asked for an English menu and got a German menu. I wanted a pale ale beer and tried to communicate that to blond waitress pointing to the color of her hair and to the color of the table but I received a dark beer. The manager, who spoke English, came over and corrected the beer order. My laptop was still pointing to the hotel Wi-FI and asking me for a username and password. Eventually, I disconnected and found the Restaurant’s free Wi-Fi site and was ready to do some serious internet work.
For over four hours I sat in the Café writing my journal, accessing the internet and reading and writing emails. A young man sat at a table next to me and his battery was getting low so he asked me in English if he could use my outlet for a while. He turned out to be a Russian from Moscow staying in the hotel and had spent four years living in the Seattle area working for a Russian fishing organization. He helped me order my lunch and a second beer.
At 18:50 I paid my bill and packed up my laptop, retrieved my carry on from the Hotel storage and right at 19:00 Sasha walked in. We loaded the bags in his van and we were off to the railway station. It took 25 minutes to get there and we sat in the waiting area as the train was scheduled to depart at 20:10. I was gathering all my documents and could not find my passport. Then I remembered that I had turned it in to the receptionist and when I check out they didn’t return it to me and I forgot to ask. Sasha didn’t speak English but he saw the panic on my face when I said – “Passport is back at hotel!” We gathered up my backs and rushed to the van and off we went – he got to the hotel in ten minutes. He parked on the side street and I jumped out and ran around the building to see a tour bus parked in front. When I ran up the stairs to the lobby it was packed but I by passed the line at the reception desk and yelled “I need my passport”. The woman who had checked me out dropped what she was doing and knew right where it was. I grabbed it and ran pass the bewildered crowd back to the van. Sasha took off on the same route we had taken 25 minutes to complete but this time the whole round trip took only 25 minutes and I had 20 minutes to find the correct train and my compartment. I think Sasha told the female conductors to take care of the “old man”.
Originally this leg of the trip from Kaliningrad was planned to be a flight but Air Baltic changed their daily schedule to every other day and I had to go by train. The Tourist Agency gave me a choice to reserve a four person compartment by myself for the same cost as the airfare or take my reserve just one berth in a compartment and get a partial refund. I choose the later hoping that I would have some interesting compartment mates. When the train left the station I was disappointed because I was all alone in the compartment. In the next compartment was a family with a crying baby and their dog, on the other side, a family eating a nice meal. I had neglected to purchase food for the trip.
Eighty five kilometers from Kaliningrad the train stopped and a 46 year old burly Russian with a shaved head and a big smile, wearing a black t-shirt entered my compartment. He spoke no English but somehow we exchanged information and I learned that his name was Ivan and he was a Regional Sales Manager for John Deer Tractors. He was carrying a bag with a John Deer logo on the side. From his bag he laid on the compartment table a half liter bottle of Cognac, a small loaf of black bread, a similar size chunk of string cheese, a cucumber, an orange, a quarter pound of ham, a box of chocolate and a packet of shot glass size cups
He motioned to me to join him and whipped out a Swiss Army knife, poured us each a shot of Cognac, which he downed in one gulp, and set about to cut up the bread, ham, cheese, cucumber, and orange. He was grinning all the time and refilling our cups with Cognac along the way.
He got a big kick at the Russian Federation boarder when six custom agents gathered in our compartment to pour over my passport smiling when they saw the visas for Uzbekistan, and the other former USSR “stans”. At the Lithuania boarder a few miles later the Customs went a lot faster. After the border crossing my comrade and I lay down and turned out the light. I was asleep when we arrived in Vilnius at 01:45. The conductor woke me and I bid farewell to Ivan and thanked him for the food and drink, gathered my luggage and departed the train. On the platform was my transfer agent with a sign with my name. He spoke very little English so we rode in silence to the Hotel Scandic Neringa in the center of the city. It was a more modern hotel than the previous two and the room and bath were similar to US hotels. I was able to turn the light out by 03:00.
Jun 04, 2009 (Thursday) Train - Vilnius, Lithuania to Minsk, Belarus
I awoke to my alarm at 07:00, showered, shaved, changed my bandage and went down to breakfast. It was the same buffet as all the other hotels and I had my usual, tomato, cheese, ham and an egg. One difference was they didn’t have an orange.
Back in my room I brushed my teeth and packed my bags. The weather was predicted to shower and looked cold and clear outside. I carried my rain jacket just in case to meet the tour guide in the lobby at 10:05. I sat on the bus for five minutes waiting for additional tourists. The guide was a young woman named Agnieska, she is a native of Vilnius and used to work for Delta Airlines in their local office.
Background on Lithuania: It is the southernmost country of the three Baltic Countries. It was the largest in both in size and population. It had a population of 3,555,179 (and 4,912,000 cell phones!).
The ethnic breakdown is:
· Lithuanian: 83.4%
· Polish: 6.7%
· Russian: 6.3%
The religious breakdown is:
· Roman Catholic: 79%
· Russian Orthodox: 4.1%
· Protestant: 1.9%
The languages breakdown is:
· Lithuanian: 82%
· Russian: 8%
· Polish: 5.6%
GDP composition by sector is:
· Agriculture: 4.3%
· Industry: 29.1%
· Services: 56.9%
A van arrived and out came a family of five in short sleeve shirts. There were three boys, junior high age. They were from the Alabama, Georgia state line and all spoke with southern accents. One of the boys and the father had Nikon cameras with telephoto lens and another boy had a compact digital like mine. The father acted as a platoon leader directing the boys to “shoot” scenes over Agnieska’s commentary (very distracting for both her and me).
The tour drove around most of the city with the first stop at the Church of Saint Peter and Paul, described as “A pearl of Lithuanian Baroque, this is the most splendid example of the style. It was built 1668-1674, and the interior took another 30 years. The founder of the church, Grand Hetman M. K. Pacas, encapsulated himself in Latin on the façade: Regina Pacis funds nos in pace (Queen of Peace, strengthen us in peace). There were over 2,000 figures in the church. It was difficult what to take pictures of since there were so many.
The family was cold and mumbled about touring too many churches, but still took dozens of pictures. At the next scheduled stop they voted to not get out of the bus and it was a good thing since it started to rain as we sat in the bus across from the church Agnieska was describing. Before we moved on it hailed, and then sleeted. We continued around the city with Agnieska explaining the buildings we passed and the family rudely bounced back and forth in the back of the van taking pictures as on the barking orders of the father.
The rain had stopped when we arrived at the obligatory stop at an Amber Jewelry store and museum. Another tour group was already in the store so the clerks were busy and didn’t hassle us. No photographs were allowed on the sales floor but they were allowed in the basement museum. There we learned about the creation of amber, its color and why it is more prevalent in this area of the world. One of the more interesting displays had insects imbedded in the amber.
Leaving the “museum” we drove past more buildings and Agnieska was continually talked over as the father directed his sons to take pictures of the buildings she was describing.
Back at the hotel I had just enough time to gather my luggage and checkout before the transfer agent arrived to drive me to the train station to board the train to Minsk.
The driver just dropped me at the front of the station and I was on my own to find the correct train to Minsk. The schedule board listed it as Track 5 which required a walk down stairs and under five sets of tracks. There were two entrances to Track 5 and I waited at the wrong one. As it came close to departure a railway employee asked if I was going to Minsk and when I replied “yes”, she pointed to the other entrance. I had to lug my carry on up a long flight of stairs and a young man insisted on helping me. When I got to the top I could see that most people had already boarded the train. The young man was very disappointed when I informed him that I had no local currency.
Once on the train I realized it was open seating with no doors on the compartments. I found an empty compartment and stored my bags under the bunk as I had the night before. There was a fold out table like in the previous train and I sat by the window and took out a magazine to read. Just before departure a young lady came in and sat across from me. She spoke English and we had quite a lengthy conversation. Her name was Marina and she was from Minsk but was attending a University in Vilnius and was going home for the weekend. Normally she hitch hikes with her boy friend that also is from Minsk attending the same University but was not going home that weekend and insisted that she take the train rather than hitchhike by herself. They have hitchhiked all over Europe where they are allowed with a Belarusian Passport.
At the boarder we had a long stop with a lot of police, and custom agents walking up and down the aisle with dogs sniffing for drugs. Eventually the woman performing passport control entered our compartment and after seeing the US Passport summoned her colleagues and they poured over my passport, page by page. Eventually most had left and the one agent with the stamp asked where my insurance papers were. I produced a copy of my Access America Travel Insurance. She shook her head and muttered something that Marina translated that American Insurance is no good – I needed Belarusian Insurance. Marina told me it used to be optional but is now required. After a lot of discussion they agreed to let me continue because Marina promised to make sure I bought insurance as soon as I arrived in Minsk. They stamped my exit form and my visa and left the compartment. I remarked to Marina that since they had stamped my papers how would they know if I purchased insurance? Soon one of the agents returned to the compartment and asked for my passport and exit form. She marked each in pen with the letter “c”. After they left and the train started up again Marina speculated that the “c” would be the signal to the Passport Control Agent when I left the country to check my Insurance Papers.
When we arrived in Minsk a large man was standing on the platform with a sign with my name. His name was Alexander and Marina explained the need for me to get insurance. We stopped at the Currency Exchange booth so I could get local currency to purchase the Insurance. Alexandra stayed with me as Marina left to search for the Insurance Office. It was close to 19:00 and I was the last person to exchange money before they closed for the day. Marina returned with the news that all offices were closed and we thanked her for her efforts and left for the hotel.
The Hotel Yubileynaja was a large hotel containing a Casino and a Topless Bar. My room was Spartan with two beds at right angles to each other. The view from the room was spectacular overlooking a large park, the sports complex and a lake.
After unpacking I set out to eat dinner. The hotel restaurant was closed for a private party so I headed to the bar. They had a pub style menu and it took a long time (two beers) to get a simple chicken with a cheese crust and one piece of broccoli. Smoking was allowed in the room which made it not a pleasant meal.
There was no Wi-Fi in the room, so I wrote some journal entries and retired at 22:00.
Jun 05, 2009 (Friday) Fly - Minsk, Belarus to Warsaw, Poland
I awoke to my alarm at 06:00. I wanted to be packed and ready to go by 09:00. The Hotel Restaurant didn’t open to serve breakfast until 07:30. I was one of the first to eat. It was the standard buffet with fried eggs, but no fresh fruit. I packed my bags and proceeded to the front desk at 08:30 and asked the receptionist to call my travel agency. No one answered. I explained to the receptionist my need to buy insurance and she suggested that I try the travel agency next door. They open at 08:30. When I walked in there were two ladies, neither understood English and sort of indicated that I should return at 09:00.
At 09:00 I had the receptionist call my Travel Agency instead. This time they answered the phone and told her they would arrange it. Just then Alexander, the driver last night arrived with a young English speaking Tour Guide, named Veronica. They talked to their office and made sure I had packed and would be ready to go to the airport when the tour finished at noon. I assured them I was, and off we went.
Background on Belarus: It is an ex-Soviet Republic, bordered on the west by Poland, northwest by Lithuania and Latvia, north and east by Russia, and the south by the Ukraine. Its population is 9,648,533 (and only 6,960,000 cell phones). It gained its independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1991 but has retained closer ties to Russia than any of the other former Republics, thus the bureaucratic visa and customs procedures.
The ethnic breakdown is:
· Belarusian: 81.2%
· Russian: 11.4%
· Polish: 3.9%
· Ukrainian: 2.4%
The religious breakdown is:
· Russian Orthodox: 80%
· Other: 20%
The languages breakdown is:
· Belarusian: 80
· Russian: 20%
GDP composition by sector is:
· Agriculture: 8.4%
· Industry: 41.5%
· Services: 50.1%
The first stop was the only Insurance Company in the city that can sell the required Insurance to foreigners. The minimum I could purchase was for three days and it cost €2. What a racket! But I now felt relieved.
Minsk is an interesting city, different than the others because 98% of it was destroyed in the war and it was rebuilt from a master plan. The streets are very wide and the area is flat so they are straight and at right angles to each other (reminds me of the San Fernando Valley streets with fewer cars). There are five large parks which Veronica told me are crowed on the weekend because they are a long distance from mountains, sea shores or even large lakes. The parks in the city serve the recreation that people in other cities would drive to the country instead. It is also a city of monuments and squares celebrating wars and freedom. The area has been part of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. It has been a Republic on its own and been occupied by Germans and Russians. It was in Minsk that the first Socialist conclave was held. The building is preserved to this day and is across the road from the apartment that Lee Harvey Oswald once lived.
The city had a number of churches that either survived the war or have been restored since the breakup of the USSR. One of the first stops on the tour was the island of tears. A manmade island in the river with a monument in the center honoring the 700 Belarusians that died in Afghanistan. Across the road from the bridge to the island is an area restored to 18th Century style houses that were restored with the assistance from UNESCO, but it is not a designated site.
The next stop was the Russian Orthodox Church which was having services. It was a beautiful but typical church. The clergyman leading the prayer had a full gray beard looking the part of a Russian or Greek Orthodox minister. We toured a side chapel and exited quickly. Agnieska does not attend church and made some remarks about the requirement for men to remove their hats but that ladies needed to be covered. From there we drove to the Town Hall which has origins back to 1499. It has been rebuilt several times and the current building was reconstructed in 2003.
Since the city was virtually destroyed during World War II the reconstruction designed wide straight boulevards. We walked the plaza area and Veronica pointed out the University where her father was a professor and where she attended and studied English. Close by was the house that the first Communist Conclave was held. At the time it was thought that to hold the meeting in St. Petersburg or Moscow was too dangerous so a railway worker offered his home in Minsk. Across the street of the house is the apartment that Lee Harvey Oswald lived in at one time before he married in Minsk.
The next stop was the city library. It is the tallest building in the city and has a complete glass exterior and its first floor is smaller than the higher floors giving it the look of a jug upside down. The front door is shaped like an open book. And written on the pages on each side of the door is: “That the man of God may be perfect furnished to every good work” in forty or more languages.
Veronica teaches English at the university part time and is the only child of an English professor. She was very proud of the Library and was tasked to conduct tours of visiting dignitaries through it.
The rain started to fall as we returned to my hotel and by the time I was ready to load my luggage into the van it was really pouring so we deviated off the direct route to the airport to drop Veronica off near her home.
On the long road to the airport we passed a hill with a monument on top. This was the spot where the Russians surrounded the Germans and retook Minsk in WWII.
At the airport I bid farewell to Alexander who had put up a lot with my Insurance problems. They have double security at the airport initially you line up in a small lobby and a small number at one time are let into the area with the scanning machines. I didn’t have to remove my laptop but I did have to remove my belt and the agent told me not to put back on because I would be going through security again. When I set off the alarm I pointed to my knee and they didn’t spend much time patting me down, just a quick wand to confirm that the knee was the problem then a quick pat around my knee and off I went to checkin. There were two lines and I was second to a couple with a small girl. Just my lunch there was some problem with their passport and I stood there for 15 minutes while it was sorted out with other agents and supervisors giving to counter agent advice and directions.
On my right was the Business Class counter with no agent. Some of the men behind me started to grumble and one of the supervisors said he could check in three Business Class customers. There was a rush of men behind me to be one of the three. Whan it was finally my turned I showed the agent my United Premier Executive Card to get credit for the miles and in return she handed me an invitation to the Business Class Lounge.
The second security check didn’t even wand or pat me down when I set off the alarm. I found the Business Class Lounge. Nothing fancy but I was able to eat some small slices of bread with sliced salami or cheese on them and washed it down with a beer. It had taken me forty five minutes from the time Alexander dropped me off until I got to the lounge. After thirty minutes in the lounge I headed for the gate and arrive just as they were starting to board so I was one of the first in and was seated in 10F, a window seat. Just before the door closed a businessman took the middle seat next to me. It was only a one hour flight but they served a lettuce, tomato and cheese sandwich in route.
He was an Investment Banker from Warsaw and we had some interesting discussions. To the Polish people in his opinion, Ronald Regan was a great President because he put the pressure on the USSR and they became scared of attack and broke their economy by spending too much money on defense. He is concerned that Obama is more talk with little action and the Russians and Islamic Militants are not afraid of talk, they only fear action. He thought Bush was doing the right thing by being tough on the terrorists but lost world credibility in other areas.
When we stopped after landing at the Warsaw airport, he did not get up when the rows in front of us empted. He said “This is a bus gate and last off the plane is the first off the bus.” Sure enough, were we almost the last off the plane and had to crowd onto the bus at the door so I was one of the first off and first in line at a passport control station. My bag was just coming down the chute when I got to the luggage carousel so I was out of the terminal in just a few minutes.
I had to wait for my driver. He spoke no English and it was a crowded drive from the airport to the Intercontinental Hotel. It was located in the center of the city next to the Metro station and a multi story shopping center, so the traffic was very crowded and just crawled through the area. It was a 5 star hotel but charged $35 a night for an in room internet connection. Wi-Fi in the lobby is free but they put me in a room on the 32nd floor so I get no signal.
For dinner I had their Friday Night Sea Food Buffet with more food than I needed to eat because the buffet included Maine lobsters among other things.
I ate around 18:00 and retired to my room to write my journal and send an email by my Blackberry to Judy letting her know they let me leave Belarus.
Lights out at 23:00
Jun 06, 2009 (Saturday) Fly - Warsaw, Poland to Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I awoke from a sound sleep at 06:00. When I opened the curtains there was a very bright shining sun directly into my room. The temperature was forecast to be in the high 50 to 60°F range and I could see a low haze (smog?) over the city with no clouds in the sky. I went down to breakfast at 07:30. They had the standard buffet but had an omelet cook and a harpist playing background music. Very fancy! Compared to what I am used to in my travels. When I finished breakfast I went down to the front desk and asked them to enter my Priority Club number. Then I asked them when I had to check out and because I am in the Priority Club I had until 14:00. Perfect, since my tour was not scheduled to end until 13:30 and my transfer to the airport was scheduled for 14:50.
The CITYRAMA Tour Guide showed up a little late at 09:15 for the City Tour. It is conducted in both Spanish and English and the two women from my hotel that were on the tour spoke Spanish. There were already four people on the bus and our Guide, George, informed us that two more would join us at our first stop.
The first stop was at a beautiful architectural award winning building by Norman Foster at the north end of Plaza of Pilsudskiego. The Plaza was full of people and had a stage set up with a choral group performing in white robes. They were celebrating the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s mass that was held at the square in which he encouraged the Poles to become self reliant. We walked northwest of the square to the Le Royal Meridien Bristol Hotel where we added two Spanish speaking women and a baby in a stroller to our group. Near this point was the “Royal Route” which has “magnificent palaces, churches and monuments”. We stopped in front of the Presidential Palace with a statue of Jozef Poniatowski in front. Looking southwest down the street was the University of Warsaw and Holy Cross Church which contains Chopin’s heart. Chopin was a native of the area and he is buried in Paris but his sister had his heart removed from his body and sent back to Warsaw.
From this point we walked past the Ministry of Culture and back to the Plaza of Pilsudskiego where the crowd was getting larger and on the west side of the Plaza we observed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Pope John Paul actually conducted his mass at the Tomb instead of the northwest corner where the stage was setup for the anniversary celebration. The Tomb has a number of broken columns protruding above the roof. There was once two palaces on the Plaza joined by a walkway. The Germans destroyed the two palaces and all that was left was part of the walkway which became the building for the Tomb.
We boarded our bus again and drove through the city to the area of the Jewish Ghetto. There we stopped and saw a display of pictures and maps that tell the story of the Nazi interment and liquidation of Jews and Poles during the war. There is a large Monument of Ghetto Heroes at the sight. We spent 20 minutes at the site and then re-boarded the bus to tour the Ghetto area streets, drive past the prisons to Lazienki Park where we walked for an hour through the park visiting the Chopin Monument and the Palace on Water where Condoleezza Rice signed the Nuclear Shield Accords. At the North end of the park we exited to get back on our bus just as a group of College kids were parading by promoting Green conservation.
We boarded our bus around the corner and watched the parade again as it rounded the corner. The tour then returned back to the Plaza of Pilsudskiego, passing the prisons used by the Nazi’s and the Russians to house Poles that spoke out against the occupations of the country. At the Plaz we found a significant larger crowd but we disembarked on the northwest edge of the Plaza and walked to the “Old Town” area. As we walked through the cobble stones streets, George pointed out the various buildings that had been restored using in many cases the original stone and bricks. We entered St. John’s the Baptist Cathedral at noon to attend a live organ concert. Beautifully performed! Along the side was a display of the history of Poland.
When we exited the church I noticed across the street that there was a Subway sandwich shop and a character dressed to look like a Subway sandwich exited the shop and started walking through the crowd to advertise the shop. It just seemed so funny to see the contrast between the old Polish cathedral and the modern US sandwich chain. The tour then walked to the wall that separates the Old Town and the Barbican area into the New Town. The New Town buildings were not heavily damaged during the war so they are actually older that the Old Town buildings. We stopped in Market Square where there is a fountain in the middle with a mermaid statue that represents the fish telling the people to build a city on this spot. There are many outdoor restaurants in the square and George pointed out one that the two President Bush’s have eaten at.
As we strolled out of the square we reached the Monument of Warsaw Uprising. During the end of World War II the Russians advanced to Warsaw and the Germans were in retreat. The Polish Resistance attempted to take charge of the city, drive the last Germans out and declare independence. Instead the Russian’s stopped their advance and encouraged the Germans to put down the “Uprising” before they surrendered the city to the Russians and were allowed to retreat. It is an impressive monument and marked the end of the CITYRAMA Tour. The ladies staying at my hotel and I re-boarded the bus and were dropped off at the hotel at 13:45.
The hotel elevators required that you use your room key card to advance higher than the second floor. When I inserted my card and selected my floor the elevator didn’t move. I guessed that the room key had not been programmed to allow me to checkout at 14:00. After a little hassle at the reception desk because my record had been closed out at noon, I was finally given a new card and was able to retrieve my luggage.
I still had a couple of hours to kill before my transfer to the airport and I hadn’t had lunch so I ate a salmon and asparagus salad in the Café and plugged in my laptop to write some journal entries.
A driver with my name on a card arrived at 14:50 to take me to the airport. He was not the same man that had met me the night before and spoke more English that the other driver did. He told me that the other driver was stuck in traffic and had called him to pick me up in his place.
The Warsaw Chopin Airport was a large modern terminal. My flight was scheduled on LOT Polish Airlines which is a Star Alliance member so my United Premier Executive status granted me an invitation to their Business Class lounge. Passport Control was a breeze and Security was no problem. The lounge was larger than the one in Vilnius. I was able to plug in my laptop and wrote more journal entries.
The aircraft, a B-737, boarded on time and I was seated in 10F,
Jun 07, 2009 (Sunday) Fly – Amsterdam, The Netherlands to Los Angeles
I awoke to my alarm at 06:00, shower, shaved and replaced my bandages and packed. After checking out and paying my bill (the room was on American Express Reward Points, but the tax was $61), I walked into the terminal and took the elevator to the Baggage Lockers were I retrieved my two large bags from the cruise. It cost me €48 for the week of storage. From there it was a long walk (pushing the baggage cart) to the United Check in stations which were in a different terminal from the Baggage Storage are and up two floors. Just before the United counters I stopped at an empty counter and checked the weight of my bags and off loaded some of the clothes from my carry on to the lighter of the two large bags. From there I when to the United check in area and had only person in front of me in the Business Class/Premier line. Check in was a breeze, as was Passport Control. United has subcontracted its Business Lounge and my expectations to get a free breakfast in the lounge were not met. I did have some small buns with meat and some with cheese but no fresh fruit.
Security is handled at the departure gate and there was a separate line for Coach and First/Business Class. The former was real long and the later was short. Each passenger is personally interview before sending their bag through the x-ray machine. We could keep our shoes on but had to remove our belts. The pat down was quick and the wand was quick. I didn’t have to wait long to board the plane. I used Miles to fly on a Business Class round trip from Amsterdam to Los Angeles and return in August for my Rotterdam to Boston via Iceland cruise. This was the first time I had been on this B-767 Business Class configuration. Every other row faces in the opposite direction in seats that can lay horizontal. Since I had had a good night’s sleep and our take off was at 11:20 I just eat, drank and watched three movies and several TV shows. The movies were: The International, New in Town and Defiance. The International had a shoot-em-up scene in the Guggenheim Museum which was a little unbelievable. New in Town starred Rene Zellweiger, as a business woman sent to a small town in Minnesota to shut town a food processing plant. Harry Conick Jr also starred in it. The Defiance was a true story based in Belarus during World War II, which having just been in Minsk, Belarus, I found interesting.
Landing in Chicago was early but it was a really long walk from the gate to Passport Control and a plane from India arrived at the same time, so there were long lines at Passport Control and at Customs. On the aircraft before landing they told us to be sure not to turn on our cell phones until we exited the Customs terminal. My bags came off the carousel rather quickly but then it was a long line to get the Customs check. The O’Hare International Terminal is separate from the other terminals so I had to take a train which was crowded and I boarded just before the door closed so I was standing in the area in front of the door and there were no overhead rail to hang on too and when the train lurched forward I lost my balance and crashed into several people. I still could not get a rail and the train lurched again and again I crashed into the people. I cursed out load “why the hell don’t they have a rail running the length of the car instead of stopping at the doors?” A female pilot replied “Ask Mayor Daley”.
When I got to the United Terminal I had to go through Security again. WELCOME TO AMERICA! They handed searched both my laptop back and my carry-on, confiscated the mouthwash in my toilet kit and chewed me out for not taking my CPAP machine out and putting it through the x-ray machine in a separate bin. I then turned on my cell phones and had a voice and text message from United informing me that my LAX flight was delayed an hour and fifty minutes. The aircraft was delayed in San Francisco due to runway construction. I went to the Red Carpet Club and plugged in my laptop and wrote in my journal. I was able to call Judy and United had already sent her a voice message notifying her of the delay.
The aircraft finally arrived and I boarded at 17:00 and was seated in 3B. Next to me was a man who was returning from the D-Day 65th Anniversary ceremony. He had also gotten up at 06:00 in Paris. We were both groggy and after a meal I attempted to watch the movie: “He’s Just Not Into You” and dozed off during some of the dull parts and slept through the TV shows that followed the movie.
We arrived at LAX at 19:40 and the limo driver that greeted me was one that I have ridden with many times. He immediately recognized me and my yellow stripped luggage.
I was home by 20:30 – the journey and experiences over for this time.