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May 25, 2006


The hardest part was the day or so before leaving. I have panic disorder. It’s actually no less manageable than asthma, but it’s something I have to deal with when traveling and the irony now is I travel more than ever. I get nervous about unfamiliar places or leaving too much unfinished business behind, so this trip was a prime candidate. I’ve dealt with it long enough so that there isn’t much panic in panic disorder, just nervous restlessness, but at about 3 am on Tuesday night when I thought that just not getting on the plane was an appetizing option I knew I was going to have to medicate. No big deal. I've done this often I enough I know my exact dosage so that it stops the adrenalin from coursing through my system without making it harder to think. I cut a bunch of clonazepam pills in half and tucked them in my bag.

I pared the luggage for this trip down to a rolling garment bag and a small roll bag for lighter items that got looped over the handle. My messenger back was also weighted down with books for the flight and yes, a liter of water. Giardia is an issue in St. Petersburg; I didn’t want to HAVE to go searching for bottled water immediately. I opted for the bus to JFK instead of the Airtrain. It meant fewer luggage transfers but is more subject to traffic, which was bad. I arrived less than an hour before my flight.

British Airways Club World check-in – actually almost everything about Club World can be confusing because it is designed to be off the logical flow of traffic so only the people who are supposed to use it go to it. If you’ve never used the service before, finding the check-in counter or the Terraces Lounges can be very counter-intuitive. Once found, the bag drop line (I checked in online) was short; there is a dedicated security checkpoint and off I went to attempt to find the Terraces lounge. This took three circles and finally asking a staff person. I had enough time to drink some grapefruit juice and have a small brownie before I realized my plane was boarding.

Club World service is British Airways business class. It isn’t World of Luxury; that really isn’t the British way. Service is fast and unobtrusive but they don’t fawn. The meal was fine – hearts of palm salad, a small fillet steak, cherry flan for dessert and chocolates. You don’t get business class for the food – you get it for the seat.

The Club World seat is an odd affair; a series of compartments arranged like a back to back like a loveseat, but an antisocial loveseat with folding privacy screens that bristle up like a sea of parasols in the rain. With a button, the seat rolls out flat to meet the footrest and become a bed. It is a very thin bed; no big deal for me, but even at my size it was like sleeping in a coffin. Still, you get a lot more sleep than you would in coach. I brought sweatpants and an extra t-shirt in my carry on, a good idea.

Before supper and sleep, I read more of “St. Petersburg, A Cultural History” and also “The Bronze Horseman” by Pushkin in an English translation by Charles Johnson. Tail winds were with us and we made it to London in very fast flying time eaten up by a long delay from traffic control at JFK. Like JFK, Heathrow Airport presents its own problems. JFK is eternally under construction, a subterranean Kafkaesque nightmare. Heathrow is the size of a small principality with 20 minute bus rides between terminals, and not arranged so that one trip through security gets you where you were going. It took three separate security checks before I was at my gate. Club World entitled me to use the Terraces Lounge in Heathrow as well. There are spa services there, alas, the wait was too long so I settled for a shower. Even a shower is a lovely thing. Had I known, I would have also tucked a change of underwear and a razor in my underwear. They’ve got everything else there (if I had asked, they probably had the razor).

Club Europe is more akin to domestic first class in the US. The seat pitch is 34 inches (same as jetBlue) but the flight was only 3 hours. Food was again perfectly decent (grilled shrimp appetizer, gnocchi main course, cheese for dessert.) I avidly ate all greens and fruit; one of my nervousnesses about St. Petersburg was the warning not to eat any raw vegetables that may have been washed in the water. Blech.

The preferential treatment ends at Pulkovo airport. The first signs you see (Citibank and Jetway) are in English, not Cyrillic, and direction signs are mercifully in both English and Russian, but the immigration form is not. There are too few immigration windows and several chaotic lines that spring up without any sort of traffic control. It takes about half an hour to pass through; passport control is a wordless process that I assume involves the agent looking you up in a database. The luggage was already waiting, and passing through the green “nothing to declare” line at customs is no different than here. With that I was out the door and in Russia.

I don’t know the name of my driver; I had arranged him through gotorussia.net for $70 roundtrip – less than a few other places, and I could pre-pay with credit card. I decided not to change money at the airport, for convenience I handed him $20 and he gave me 550 roubles, which is close enough to the official rate. His English was limited, so amazingly enough we had a faltering conversation in Russian. It was not remotely brilliant, but we figured a few things out. The approach into St. Petersburg is anticlimactic, but that’s true in New York and Buenos Aires as well. Here, you pass through grim industrial areas and then the city starts to become more beaux arts, but it still is sooty and grim. I haven’t gone into the monumental center yet.

The ride took close to an hour from traffic, and I tipped the driver $5, which may have been generous considering he left me around the corner from the entrance and I had to wheel my luggage there myself – but traffic was vile. The Radisson itself is on the level of a solid 4* US hotel. It’s clean and pleasant, with all the amenities you would expect from a business class hotel like a Hilton or Hyatt. Call me a wimp, but I’m a stranger in a strange land. I wanted a familiar oasis. Better than anything, it has free wi-fi.

I have a room on the top floor with a skylight but no window. I arrived at 7:30 pm. I was so tired after fourteen hours travel that I just put on the bathrobe that came in the room, worked on the computer until about 11 pm and went to bed, rising at 5:30 am. I always forget one or two non-disastrous items when I travel, unpacking reveals them. This time, I forgot the Imodium I bought, and I forgot to pack ties and to launder half my shirts. I have ten performances to attend this trip so that will need to be taken care of, but I am on Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping street.

I’ll be taking a walking tour shortly and going to my first ballet tonight, La Bayadère.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at May 25, 2006 11:08 PM

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