Wednesday, January 12, 2011

84. Food Poisoning

The day after we sailed away from Moscow I became ill with the most terrible tummy upset. I managed to get into the shower/toilet and my whole body exploded! I crawled into the shower fully dressed, turned on the water as hard as it would go and tried to clean myself, my clothes and the bathroom. It wasn't easy because I did not have any cleaning materials and I kept passing out. Because I had not appeared at dinner, one of the passengers from my table came to see if I was alright, which I definitely was not. Very late that night the ship's doctor, escorted by a tour guide, came to see me and it was difficult trying to describe my symptoms, medical history, medication etc., to someone who spoke not a word of English and looked a lot like Mussolini! He handed me one pill and later brought down the most ghastly medicine for me to drink, but I would have drunk anything to get better. He called twice a day for three days each time bringing me one pill and a draft of gunk. This upset meant that I missed three trips ashore, but on emerging from my cabin, I found that about 60% of the passengers and crew had been ill. We were a very grey looking lot. Later I handed the Doctor his envelope!

I did stagger ashore to see two churches that I particularly wanted to visit. They were onion domed, plain unguilded wood; the large one was for summer use and the tiny one for the winter. Both were built without using one single nail; they were held together with only wooden pegs. The churches were so unique that they were maintained by the World Heritage Trust and the notices on the information boards were written in several languages.

The about-face the Russian’s had made since the Communists were overthrown and foreigners invited in was quite extraordinary. The palaces and churches were being rebuilt from photographs and paintings, the original buildings having been totally destroyed, and that was why they were so bright and shiny. Millions of Rubles were being spent on rebuilding and hundreds of kilos of gold leaf made with which to cover the statues and pillars. The furniture, paintings and statues were originals but the buildings had an air of Disneyland about them.

I could not begin to describe the paintings and artwork in St. Petersburg; better you look for a book in the library, or search google. But there was one item I must mention and that was a piece made out of green jasper , in the shape of an enormous bird bath which dwarfed me as I stood beside it. It took 14 years to produce and when it was finished in 1850 it was transported to St. Petersburg on carts drawn by 160 horses!

When the remains of the last Czar and his family were discovered and eventually returned to St. Petersburg, they were entombed in the cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in a specially built chapel next to all the other Czars and, along side of them, laid the faithful servants who were killed with them. In 1988 Dignitaries worldwide collected for the special service of dedication. Also in the cathedral was a large display of photographs of all the Romanoff's known to still be living.

I was interested to know how all the candles were lit in the dozens of chandeliers that hung from the ceilings of the great ball rooms. It seemed to me that when the servants got around to lighting the last candle the first would be burnt out! Apparently, the candlewicks in each chandelier were all connected by a thin oil soaked thread. One servant was stationed at each chandelier and, on a given order, the end of each thread was lit and the flames spread rapidly to all the candles at once. It must have been quite a sight.

Russia is bigger than United States, Canada and Mexico put together. It crosses eleven time zones and is the world’s largest producer of diamonds, iron ore and oil (they pump 12 million barrels a day and in 1980 three million barrels a day were exported). They are the second largest producer of coal and gold in the world, and they have the largest resource of natural gas. Three hundred and sixty eight million cubic meters of timber are felled and dressed every year. Their resources in Siberia are largely untapped and unknown because of the dramatic weather where fifty degrees below freezing is regarded as a mild day! The supports on which the houses are built are made of metal and filled with oil to prevent them cracking in the cold.

The artwork for sale in the markets, apart from the usual kitch, was beautifully made, especially the amber jewelry, a Russian specialty. I was enthralled by the panels covering the walls of the Amber Room in the Winter Palace. These had been removed piece by piece during the war, moved to safety and had only recently been reconstructed; unfortunately one panel had been “lost” and had to be reproduced. Originally all the houses, buildings and churches were built of wood, which was plentiful, and it was Peter the Great who imported French and Italian styles of architecture and employed engineers from Scotland. At one time, there was a large settlement of European builders and craftsmen in St. Petersberg.

We visited a market where fresh produce was sold. I have never seen such an array of beautiful, colourful, high quality fruits, vegetables and flowers. Everyone looked so healthy and jolly. Helen had asked me to buy her a set of Russian dolls and the one I bought her contained forty inner dolls, the last being about the size of thumbnail. Unfortunately I bought it on the boat, about the second day out, and later saw much better ones on shore, but I had no luggage space for any more. Talks and entertainments were given on board, as we sailed down the rivers and through the lakes. As in other countries, some of the lakes are man made and it was not unusual to see a church steeple protruding from the middle of an expanse of water so navigating must have been a bit tricky. I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on deck, watching as we passed the villages with their little wooden houses and the fishermen sitting at the side of the river. It was difficult to imagine that, in a couple of month’s time, all that would be frozen over.

Considering that religion was banned under Communist rule it was surprising how many churches were still standing with the ancient icons and paintings on the walls, although I don’t think services are held in them. In three of the churches we visited, groups of men - usually four - were singing religious chants very beautifully, and I bought a couple of CDs which are very calming and soporific. The singers were not part of a church choir, but a nice tourist attraction.

Amongst all the glories of Russia, one lasting impression was the lack of public toilet facilities. The charge for the use of a clean facility in a building could be up to R20.00. Portable street toilets, with an attendant in charge, cost R10.00. The only free toilet we found, late one night, was as bad as any I have found anywhere. It was only outclassed with the toilets at the Colosseum in Rome!

In spite of the toilets, and being ill for three days with food poisoning, the visit to Russia was the most memorable and brilliant experience of my life. I would recommend it to anyone but advise them to take along a large picnic hamper and several gallons of pure water.

Arriving back in England I needed something very special to top that trip and I found it in Carlisle, in the shape of Emily, my first great grand child. What a little “bobby-dazzler”, as Tom would say.

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