Monday, March 17, 2014

London to Kiev

The Great Gate of Kiev


I’m staying back from activities again this evening – this time the Moscow Circus, which I saw the last time I was in Moscow in 1992, and for which my strongest emotion was pity for the bears. Hopefully I’ll have better luck this time catching up with the trip journal. I’ll begin with the Kiev pre-trip to the Russian River Cruise with Grand Circle Travel.

On the flight from Heathrow to Kiev I scanned the plane, looking for likely GCT travelers but didn’t see anyone who looked promising. I was near the back of the plane, and when I deplaned, the customs lines were very long. We had to fill out an entry form, which we hadn’t been told about on the plane prior to landing. I filled out a form while waiting in line, but when I got to the immigration counter, the man told me I had to fill out the exit side of the form as well; this had essentially identical information on it. He did, however, let me back up to the counter after I had filled it out without having to wait in line again. I had visions of losing my bag in this foreign airport, with no one here to pick me up, and not knowing what hotel I was supposed to go to. I was annoyed with my stupidity at not getting that information out of the bag at Heathrow. I didn’t remember the name of the hotel we were staying at and hoped I'd copied it in folder that I kept in an outside pocket of the large suitcase.
When I finally got to the baggage pick-up section, the only carousel rotating carried luggage of a plane from Paris. Fortunately, the airport was small, and I wandered to the last, empty carousel in the back of the room--which had already stopped--and I spied my bag near the wall beside it. I was relieved and delighted, opened the bag, got out the trip folder, tore out the page where I had written the name of the hotel, and proceeded out of the baggage area. Sure enough, no one was there to pick me up. So I asked about a taxi, for which I received two estimates: 300 and 400 grivnas (the Ukrainian unit of exchange). I got 1,000 grivnas out of a money machine, paid 400 of them to a taxi kiosk, got a receipt, and gave it to a driver who appeared from somewhere. He drove me the several (I would say at least 15 – 20) miles into downtown Kiev to the Radisson Blu.
The city of Kiev, across the Dnieper 
When the taxi stopped in front of the hotel, a bell hop scurried out the door and took my bags up the steps and into the hotel lobby. I felt so relieved, all I could think was, ‘No more lugging those bags through endless corridors of train and metro stations on my own. Hallelujah!’
Inside the hotel I saw a desk with a GCT sign over it and a large, pleasant-looking woman with very blond hair sitting behind it. I went up to her and introduced myself. Her name is Natasha.
“So, you have arrived already. You obviously made it here on your own,” she said, and I nodded. I got the key to my room and, when I went in, found my assigned roommate, Joan Brown, a very good-natured and pleasant woman from Texas--though originally from Missouri, I believe.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

London Revisited

Children playing in a park near St. Pancras Station, London
Sitting in a pastry shop in St. Pancras terminal, strategizing my stay here in London (~ 2 days). I got 50 Pounds (L) out of the cash machine and intend to go to the Ruskin Hotel to see if they have a room for a night or two. I dropped off all my bags (except for the back-pack purse) at bag storage. After checking out the Ruskin hotel, I intend to come back to St. Pancras and take the underground to the airport and time that trip in order to decide whether to stay one night or two in this area or near the airport.
There are two men sitting next to me speaking something that seems like a cross between Italian, French and Spanish. Could it be Basque?
Herds of travelers pass by – East Indian, Oriental, American. Now it has thinned out to just a few. The contemporary female fashion seems to be a very short skirt dress (shirtwaist-like, although frilly and gauzy), just covering the butt-cheeks, with (and sometimes without) leg-clinging tights. A Buddhist monk, alone, just walked by in a saffron robe.

I am at Heathrow Airport – an hour earlier than the two hours early I was supposed to arrive – sitting in an Italian coffee shop sipping cappuccino. My alarm clock was set on French time, so I awoke an hour earlier than I needed to, but I didn’t realize it until nearly dressed. Getting here – to the right place at the right time – from the end of the organ tour in Toulouse, France, was not a trivial effort. In the first place, I could not make train reservations through to London on Friday, as I had hoped to, so I went to Paris on Friday and then on to London early Saturday morning. The train tickets through to London cost an additional 200.00 Euros beyond the Eurail discount, but I did catch the TGV to Paris and the Eurostar (chunnel train) to London.
In Paris, I took the Metro from Gare Parnasse to Gar du Nord and stayed at the Hotel Mercure, right across from the train station so I would be near the station because the train departed at 7:13 am. As it was, I didn’t have a lot of extra time, because I didn’t know exactly where to go to catch the train, and we had to do a double pass & security check – one to get out of France, and the other to get into England. But I made it.
Then, in London (Pancras Station), I needed to find a place to stay. I checked all my bags (including the food bag) at baggage storage, had a pastry and coffee, and then took the underground to Russell Square and walked to the Ruskin Hotel. They were all booked, but the man at the desk remembered me from before and said I could have a downstairs room (“needing renovation’) if I was only staying one night. So, I took the room, went to the British Museum again for a while and saw some things I hadn’t seen before, including the Korean room, and the large collection of exquisite Chinese ceramics, as well as a special exhibit on Chinese jade, and an “eye-opener” tour (again by Margaret Friday) on art in the Middle East. Then I had “lunch,” i.e., a large hot dog with lots of onions from a street vendor.
Afterwards, I took the Piccadilly line from Russell Square out to Heathrow to see how long that would take (about an hour). So I decided I needed to get a place to stay near the airport and, after much walking about and asking questions (the hotel accommodations people at Heathrow are singularly unhelpful), I caught a “hotel-hoppa” bus to the Holiday Inn and managed to get a room there. They had no single, non-smoking rooms, so I settled for a “smoking” room. I went back to the airport (this time by a free bus) and from there via underground to St. Pancras station, where I picked up my carry-on and the food bag, bought some food at a grocery store in the station, and took them all back to the Ruskin Hotel.
Pericles, British Museum
I spent that night sniffing, coughing and wheezing with what turned out was the beginning of a nasty cold (coughed up black specs, as well – volcanic ash, perhaps?). The next day, after a morning online at the Korean coffee shop near the museum, and another visit to the British Museum (early Greek period), I schlepped all my stuff by Metro to the Holiday Inn by the airport. From there I will fly to Kiev.