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clean and tidy

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

by environmentalist Rachael
Tallinn, Estonia

Again we’re surprised at how an imaginary line can cause everything to be instantly different. On one side, where we’ve just come from, is a roller-coaster-bumpy road lined with pines and birch trees. Russia 😉
As we wait in the queue at the line called a border we see the first trees with new green leaves. Spring has reached Estonia.
Across the line is a beautiful town; Narva, according to the sign. Set on a river or perhaps sea inlet (we’re not sure), church spires poke up from solid old stone fortress walls. It’s fairytale beautiful and we expect to see Cinderella walk by.
Russia might still think Estonia is hers, but a decade and a half of freedom from what-was-always-illegal-Russian-control has been time enough to make this a different place. For a start, the birch trees thin out! The road turns smooth, the grass is green and well-tended in public spaces. Buildings are neat and tidy. Fences, straight and made from palings (as opposed to any old scraps of anything). Gardens are being prepared. Every back yard is full of dark newly-turned earth. I suppose, to be fair to Russia, it will look the same there when the snow has gone in a couple of weeks.
Farmhouses, stone and wooden, dot the countryside. Hay bales sit rolled in fields. We pass a wind farm. Pine forests thicken. Small purple flowers brighten the forest floor. A little (very little) snow lingers in the shade. Some roads off the main one are dirt – but they look smooth. Even the ramshackle falling-down buildings look quaint rather than dishevelled. A bit further on houses sit in fenced quarter acre yards, almost New Zealand-like (but with the number of fruit trees and vegetable gardens it is a NZ of yesteryear, my childhood growing space – not the relatively cramped cross-leased infill-housing of today).

First impressions are that Estonia is a tidy place. Digging deeper we find out this is not entirely true – or at least it has not always been so. Almost exactly a year ago this was the site of a massive CLEANUP campaign – in one day over 50,000 people took to the streets, forests and waterways, and removed 10,000 tonnes of illegal waste with the help of more than 40 waste management companies, who then recycled 80% of the rubbish. You can see all sorts of inspirational details right here. I had read about this while still in New Zealand, not for one moment realising we would end up staying with some of the organisers! But here we are in a composting recycling home in the heart of Tallinn talking to guys who were instrumental in the Let’s Do It cleanup campaign last year, and who are currently working on the anniversary project about to take place this weekend. After sighing our way through Asia’s plastic bag strewn environment, this has been a welcome change. And it is encouraging to see what even a small group of volunteers can do.

Now I need to ask them – and you – about the practice of burning agricultural ground. We have seen it done all the way from Laos to Mongolia….right across Russia we saw the slow lines of ground level fire…and driving into Estonia we fought through the thickest smoke. Had this burn-off got out of control? Possible – there *were* fire appliances in attendance. Was it supposed to be so smoky? (others hadn’t been) What is it done for? Is it our equivalent of digging in potash? And if so, is our version any more ecologically sound just because we don’t witness the smoke? I really did wonder how good it is for the environment seeing the clouds of smoke hanging over the fields. But I don’t know. Can anyone enlighten me?

We found her!

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

by the Mama, who loves watching the children connect their learning
St Petersburg, Russia

Last year we read Gloria Whelan’s book, “The Angel on the Square”. So captivated by the descriptions, we added St Petersburg to our wish-list-itinerary, and we purchased the two sequels to “Angel” as well (The Impossible Journey and Burying the Sun, both of which we enjoyed immensely). Jgirl14 even corresponded with the author, hoping to learn more about the process of writing.

Imagine our delight to round the corner of a most fancy building (The Hermitage, actually) and see her standing there on one foot, still clutching a cross atop her taller-than-we-had-imagined column. We found her, the angel.
That was yesterday at the end of a long walk. Today we returned for a less tired look and to explore the Hermitage too.

Elegance in the extreme.
Excessive opulence.
Treasures beyond rich.

You get an inkling for why there might have been an uprising, a revolution!

This is one place that must be seen to be believed. Chandeliers with enough bulbs to illuminate a small city hang almost modestly from highly ornamented ceilings, and not just one or two of them! Walls are adorned with one of the most comprehensive art collections in the world (although if I may be critical, the lighting is dreadful – full sunlight streaming in so in some cases you cannot even see the pictures unless you stand to the side, and some of the paintings are covered with glass, but not even non-reflective glass). Underfoot perfectly-laid swirling parquet patterns and intricate mosaics lead from one hall to the next. Even the sheer number of rooms  is mind-boggling; over 300 of them. Navigating through the maze is not difficult – each doorway marked with a golden number plaque is on the colour-coded map, and the profusion of windows allows you to get your bearings from the embankment or square outside. Children hone map-reading skills in an effort to guide us around. We follow a tour group along a corridor. They stop in front of a clock, our attention is grabbed by a pink-gowned beauty hanging on the wall.

“Maria! There she is!” And quickly (but sedately, of course) we move along to see if her sisters and brother share this corridor space. One sister, yes. Two sisters, yes. We found them! But no brother, just two pictures of father. Back and forth we wander between the paintings, comparing them with our own mental images, telling Dadda all we can remember from our novel-reading.
On we walk in search of the dining room, where everyone was eating before being arrested. Here. Right here. This room. Really at this table? This chipped white table? I resist the urge to reach out and touch it.
The poignancy of the moment is interrupted…..where’s Tgirl5? Not with her mother. Not with her father. Not with her Grandpa. Not with her buddy. To be fair to her, she had not been directed to stay with any of these in particular – we had been wandering en masse, enjoying together. But Tgirl5 is not in the dining room. She is not in the adjoining hall. She is not in the room next door. Retracing our steps, we do not find her in the corridor with our novel-character-friends, nor in the named-by-us “ballroom”, nor in the “throne room”, nor the generals’ gallery with its missing pictures. Ten minutes has passed. We regroup. Grandpa and remaining children settle to wait in one spot while Rob heads in one direction and I make for the wide sweeping staircase with its red carpet held in place with golden rods. Being the weekend, it is busy and I struggle to spot rainbow-coloured legs amongst the mostly-dark-clothed crowd. Back and forth, up and down, another ten minutes passes. Where *is* she? Back to meeting spot. I take a ticket from Rob’s pocket so I can get back in to the building if I need to leave. We separate and look some more. Back to the meeting spot again. No Rob. He has embarked on a whirlwind tour of every single room on the second floor, and even at his long-legged pace, it’s going to take a full twenty minutes. I, meanwhile, set out in search of an information booth or Lost Children Room. Back along the now-familiar corridor, through rooms already oft-traversed towards the broad staircase, at the top of which is gingerly stepping a little girl in bright pants holding a grandmotherly hand, which has already given out lollipops and chocolates and toffees and a banana. The small one is obviously trying hard not to sob too much, but when she looks up and sees me across the expanse, she runs, dissolving into my embrace. I found her!
Profuse thanks offered to Helpful Babcia, relief is quickly replaced by wondering. How long will we have to wait for Rob to turn up? Will we be able to find that Renoir I passed, but couldn’t look at? Will we find the da Vinci again? We do. And Monet, Gauguin, Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Gainsborough, unknown painter……you name it, it was there. Well, almost. We couldn’t find any Constables in the British collection, but it’s quite possible there are some tucked away in the archives – less than half the works are on display at any one time. So many paintings.

Kgirl10 comments, “I can see why they didn’t want to sleep when they were taking the pictures down.” She’s referring to the removal of the pictures during World War II in case of bombing, a little snippet of information remembered from the Whelan trilogy. Real life and fact-based fiction merge into a new story.

Before the Hermitage Visit we managed to squeeze in a walk to the Summer Gardens (closed for drying out after the snow until next week!) and passed a magnificent church on the way. Strains of Vivaldi filled the air as an old man in black coat busked beside the canal. Cultured beauty.

St Petersburg is a lovely city. We only wish we could have longer here. There are so many museums and art galleries, cathedrals, churches and beautiful architecture, not to mention theatres with productions of everything from Don Quixote to Swan Lake (or Heaven and Hell if that’s more your scene). You could spend a month here and not run out of *culture*

I wanna be a real tourist

Friday, April 24th, 2009
by Rachael St Petersburg, Russia The day is almost half over by the time we wake, organise hostel payment, make plans, research onward bus tickets and find breakfast. That’s what happens when you arrive at midnight the night before! It’s well and ... [Continue reading this entry]


Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
the day we travelled from Moscow to St Petersburg on a day train instead of sleeper so we could see the countryside – guess what – pine trees and silver birches!   “Won’t you be lonely travelling for a year?” someone ... [Continue reading this entry]

Happy Birthday to Lenin

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
by Rach with children’s journal entry additions Moscow, Russia


Lenin’s birthday is the reason there are so many people, many with red flowers. It’s also why there’s a parade of Pioneers in their red scarves ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Sixteen Second Snowman

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
by Rachael Day 4 on Train 5, ending up in Moscow Our compartment is still pitch black when Mboy6 stirs for the toilet. As he cracks the door open light streams in and I catch a snatch out the corridor window ... [Continue reading this entry]

the middle of nowhere

Monday, April 20th, 2009
by Rach, who is the fourth person to succumb to a bug on this train Train 5 (day 3) Siberia – Siberia - Siberia I had always imagined that fictitious place, TheMiddleOfNowhere, to be an endless billowy grass-covered steppe, a flat ... [Continue reading this entry]

at last! a real snowstorm!

Sunday, April 19th, 2009
by the Mama, who is not ready to be on the homeward leg of the trip Train 5 (day 2), travelling through Siberia We all wake at approximately the same time – that would be when the train draws to a ... [Continue reading this entry]


Saturday, April 18th, 2009
by Rach Train 5 (day 1), from Mongolia to Russia Were they looking for salamis or what? Three times they unscrewed and removed the ceiling outside our compartment to check the revealed space, which would have been lucky to conceal ... [Continue reading this entry]

Trans-Salami Express

Friday, April 17th, 2009
by the lady who wants to learn to make sausage one day Train 5 Dharkan (night 1), Mongolia to the Ruskie border We haven’t even made it to the Russian border, in fact, we’ve only just boarded the train at Darkhan, ... [Continue reading this entry]