This was a week for memory in Canada. Wednesday was Remembrance Day and it always makes me melancholy. I remember my friend, Ernie Schroeder, who was a World War II veteran. I met him back in the late 90s, while I was working in fundraising at the Cancer Centre here in town. He had a great sense of humour and a real love for life. He had lived through hell during the war and he knew what it meant to value the things we so often take for granted if we haven’t been to war ourselves. I still remember sitting with him, one day in a board room, interviewing him for a direct mail campaign we were doing one Christmas time. I had to interview him in order to write his story as a cancer survivor. His work with the Royal Canadian Legion also allowed me to enter into that world, to see the fine work veterans do for their brothers and sisters. (I’m hopeful that this new government will treat veterans with greater compassion and gratitude.)

Our conversation turned to his time in Europe. He talked of liberating a concentration camp. He spoke of people who were like skeletons, barely able to stand or speak. He spoke of carrying children to safety. Then he wept, his body wracked with sobs. He is the person I think of each November 11th, when others may not have someone to remember. I remember him. He was a friend. I miss him now that he’s gone. Cancer is not a kind companion, by any means, and he taught me a great deal about how to live in the world while facing health challenges and pain.

I think, this weekend, of what Ernie would make of this strange, new world. I know he would be saddened by the carnage, by how suicide bombings and mass carnage in Beirut and Paris would likely shock him. He always said he hoped that there wouldn’t be another world war. He prayed for that. Seeing the photos of both tragedies, a human could not help but be shocked. This new war is one in which the battlefield shifts without warning. It comes to us when we least expect it, and it spreads fear where there was love.

I haven’t been to Paris. I’m a fan of traveling, though, so I’ve been to many places in Europe. I’m always amazed by the vibrancy of the cultures and the beauty that travel brings to me. I grow by leaps and bounds when I travel, as I’m sure many do. (My friends Michelle and Dan are on a round-the-world trip right now and I follow their postings with great interest.) I’m thinking of everyone who has lost someone, and I’m making a conscious decision to send light to those broken cities. We cannot let light dim. Instead, we need to be light. We need to try and not be fearful or filled with hate. We are better than that, I think….and, for the sake of the world, fear and hate does nothing but destroy and malign the beauty of humanity.

In the face of brutality, I try to root myself in art, music and literature, reminding myself of the great potential we have as humans, to lift spirits and face hatred with love and peace in our daily lives. It’s not an easy task, to be sure, and many would think it too idealistic, but I will choose light, hope, and prayer over darkness any day.

Tomorrow is what would have been my mum and dad’s 47th wedding anniversary, so I’m also thinking of them. They showed me how friendship and love works when the worst things are happening in your life, when you’re pushed down by your own poor health. They taught me to value each hour, to keep them both in my heart and mind each day, and to choose love over fear. I miss them, but they taught me well.

I hope we can all choose love over fear as we move forward. I don’t know what this new world will look like, but I know that ISIS may (ironically) spur us to be even better humans, in sharing our compassion in a local and international way.

Praying for those who lost loved ones; sending them light.


Losing a student at the school where you teach is traumatic. We lost a young girl, just seventeen, to a terrible car accident about a week and a half ago. I knew who she was, but I had not had the pleasure of teaching her. I have taught her sister, though, and I keep thinking of her in all of this grief. I only have one sister, too, and even though we may not always see eye to eye, she is still my sister. The bond is there, and bonds don’t break.

We also lost a fine young woman, a graduate, in the winter months of this year, too. Deidre Urso Paulin was a bright star, much too young to have passed in yet another tragic accident. She was the mother of two young boys. It hit those of us who had taught her years ago very hard. I learned that, even if it’s been years since you taught a student, they sit in your heart and hold space there. You see them, years later, in grocery stores or in Chapters at the check-out counter. (My most recent encounter was with a girl who now is in her late twenties. She introduced me to her two little girls, both under five years of age.) I remember thinking, ‘where has the time gone?’ and ‘look how she’s grown up!’ Even though I don’t have kids of my own, these girls are mine. You don’t easily forget them, your students.

I teach Grade 11s and 12s, so many of them were friends of this young girl. Kodee had touched so many spirits at school, and the girls were broken. The day after the accident was awful, surreal and deeply sad. There is such a sense of loss when a young person dies before their time. Her friends were bereft, the teachers tried to offer balance, as well as open hugs and listening ears, but even we were adrift. How do you explain or make sense of such a tragedy? Even adults have a hard time….

Her friends loved her so deeply; the stories they told me touched my heart. Sometimes, they just wanted to talk. Other times, they just wanted to weep, or to get a hug. They needed to grieve. For most of them, this was the first death they had encountered in their lives. Anyone’s first encounter with death, especially tragic and sudden death, is shocking and surreal. It never makes sense, no matter how hard you try to make sense of it in your head. Your heart breaks, taking precedence over the head. Emotion overtakes logic and you get to see the raw human soul that people try (so often, too often) to hide when they go about their day to day business at work or school. (Why are we so afraid of truly seeing one another, I often wonder?)

This past week, on the day of the funeral and the day afterwards, the girls were empty, flat, exhausted. The next day, they were wired and spinning with energy. I found the contrast sharp and bittersweet. They were on a roller coaster of emotion and there was no real manual for dealing with loss. Some fell asleep in class, some looked out the window with grief etched on their faces, while others seemed hyper. My Grade 12 class was spinning, so I tried a session of guided meditation. Some of the girls thought it was silly, but I told them it was one way I find peace in a frantic day. Whether you are angry, saddened, afraid, or excited….finding even five to ten minutes of mindfulness through meditation can root you to your own breath. Sometimes, it seems to me, our breath is the safest anchor in the day.

At first, they grumbled and moaned, saying that it was ‘silly’ and ‘not part of the curriculum.’ It was a resistance that I had expected. Once I asked them all to close their eyes, though, explaining that no one else would be looking at them, they did close their eyes. What I saw, as the guided meditation went on, was a sense of relief passing over their faces. They were exhausted. Having five minutes to just be in their bodies, to just focus on their breathing patterns, gave them respite from constant movement and thought. Afterwards, when I asked them what they thought of it, they asked if we could do it once a week. They said they felt peaceful, centred, less frantic. It didn’t mean that they escaped the pain of the grief they were living through (and still are living through)….it just meant that they could breathe again, without thinking, for just a few minutes of that one day.

My meditation this week has been raking leaves. It is not one of my most favourite autumn tasks, but I turned it into a meditation on movement as I went over the grief of the week in my head and heart. My two dogs, Gully and Sable, snuffled through leaf piles, chewed (illegally, I might add!) on pieces of twigs and leaves, and then stood looking through the backyard fence at passersby. I focused on raking: the stretch and the reach of the arms and shoulders, the pulling backwards, the drawing in, and then the reaching out again. I watched the green of the lawn emerge from under a sea of golden leaves. Patch by patch, I found a centring and calming force. My breath slowed, my body moving in motion with my breath, until I had finished raking. With each drawing in, of gathering leaves together, I thanked Mother Earth for the gift of the trees. I thanked Gaia for the shade in summer, for the birds that had been housed there, and even for the crazy little black squirrels who natter at one another in overhead branches. I gave thanks to the earth for a season of growth, offering it rest and helping to put the earth “to bed” for winter.

Tomorrow, I’ll come home after work and plant a few spring bulbs in my flower beds. I’ll forget where they are planted, I know, but I’ll enjoy the springing up when they arise in April or May to surprise me. In a season of endings, there are always beginnings. In a cycle of nature, energy doesn’t dissipate but it transforms. As we all move forward, again, with each new breath, I know that Kodee’s spirit continues on, in bright light, with those she loves, watching over those who are here still. I wish her family, her parents, and her sister, Jenny, especially, peace in this sorrowful time.

Remember, friends, to love the ones you’re with….and to tell those you love that you do love them. We never know what a day or night will bring us, and we need to, more often I think, bare our souls more openly. We are here to be light, so why are we so afraid to share that?

Beam brightly.

peace and blessings,

I confess….it’s been more than two months since I’ve blogged. There are reasons. I’ll begin: returning from my Scandinavian and Russian sojourn in late July took the wind out of my sails. You go from the beauty of a Russian ballet one night, and stores packed full of gorgeous green Baltic amber or lovely stacked Russian dolls, and then fly into Frankfurt and finally home to Ontario. Well, it’s all a bit of a time travel jump. (This is when I wish I had a Tardis with David Tennant in it!) :)

As a result, I spent the first few weeks of August trying to get my sleeping patterns back in order. It wasn’t easy. Once that settled, I read Joseph Boyden’s masterpiece, The Orenda, putting it down when it hit my heart too heavily and then picking it up again when I worried about how the characters were doing. Most of August, though, to be honest, was spent dealing with severe anxiety attacks. Yup. Not the nicest way to spend an August and now it’s dragged into the fall, so I’m dealing with that the best I can. It’s always an uphill battle when you least expect it in life, I’ve found…and being creative often means (I’m afraid) that one’s head is too busy for one’s own good. More on this struggle in some future post, when I’ve gained distance from the demons, but for now….

I bought my first salt lamp in August! This is exciting because I have lusted after salt lamps for years. My friend Charmaine Kennedy owns the beautifully calming Tree of Life shop on Regent Street. Knowing they are good for cleansing your chakras and other esoteric things, I purchased one. Now, when I write or read, I put that little lamp on, and a bit of classic music, and occasionally peer out at the still green leaves on my front yard trees. That salt lamp makes me thankful. Those green leaves and trees make me grateful. The classical music calms me when I get swamped with writing deadlines or heavy loads of marking. I have big senior English classes this fall, so it’s a new learning as to how to balance my marking with my writing. My classes are lovely, though, and I am always impressed by the girls I teach.

My love affair with Kate Bush’s music spans my adult lifetime. I think I may have first heard of her from my friend Mel, back in the early 1990s, when we were studying English together at Laurentian University in Sudbury. I have a short one-act play, “Ghost of a Chance,” that will be produced at the Sudbury Theatre Centre in March 2016, so I spent part of August listening to Kate Bush’s music on my CD player (yes, I’m officially old!) and working on re-writes of the play. I think it was the link between “Wuthering Heights” and my ghost in the play….and also that I think of Kate Bush as a ground breaking feminist. The character in my play is in her late twenties, searching for herself. (I find it amusing that I’m now about to enter my mid-40s and I’m searching just as much for myself these days. Mid-life crisis? No, I don’t think so. Mid-like awakening, perhaps. If I follow my parents’ leads and don’t lead a long full life, based on genetics alone, then I’m more than half way through it all already….and maybe part of this pressure I’m feeling is that I know I have many things to do before I go….and an awareness of mortality.) Anyway, listening to Kate Bush while re-writing plays in August is not a bad way to spend your time as a hermit writer type! :)

I also spent the last few weeks of August, and into this month, working on moving my novel forward. It still doesn’t have a title. I’ve written just over 200 pages, so I’m thrilled with what I’ve done since February of this year. It’s coming along….but I wonder about the ending and how it arrives, or how I should best usher it along. It’s all very mystical, this first-time-novel-writing-experiment, so I’m trying to be gentle with myself.

Now, this week….in the midst of a lot of stress, I watched the Pope arrive in America and took great comfort in his visit. I’m not usually a fan of CNN, being more a BBC and CBC type of girl than a big glitzy media imbiber! Still, CNN had excellent coverage of the Pope’s visit and I was glued to the TV. I love Pope Francis. I know, I’m likely an odd one. I’m a practicing Catholic, Mary is my “home girl”, and I still have a bag full of my grandmother’s old broken rosaries that she gave me in the mid-1990s, before she died. (She used to say them in bed at night in her old house on Wembley Drive, and I’m sure the things snapped when she slept on top of them, tangled up in her nightclothes, or maybe they slipped off the mattress in the dead of night, or she may have just prayed too hard for everyone else but herself! :) I’m lucky I had her as a guide in my life. We had plenty of conversations about religion when I was in my 20s. She was a fascinating conversationalist and I miss our talks tremendously. In any case, she loved John Paul II, or JP2 as my generation might have referred to him. She missed seeing Benedict arrive on the scene, but I truly believe she would have loved Francis. His devotion to Mary, his care for the environment, and his awareness of world poverty, all would have been things that would have resonated with her sweet heart.

I know a lot of people think Pope Francis is “too soft” in some ways. In truth, though, I think he’s brave. He speaks his mind, making comments about things that matter. He speaks of love and mercy, and of forgiveness. I want to believe in a world where what he preaches can be true on a daily basis, in our work places, in our shops and in our streets around the world. I know I’m idealistic. I think that’s why I’m drawn to what he preaches. He sees people on a human level. He doesn’t seem infallible to me…and maybe that’s why I am so fond of him. I love how he always closes everything with “and please, I ask you, pray for me.” He admits he has faults. He admits he struggles. He is human. Yes, he is human, but the light of Christ shines through every smile and every well chosen visit to homeless shelters or prisons. I love how he does things unexpectedly, launching himself into a crowd of faithful and shaking hands or taking selfies. (In some ways, he reminds me of my dad. He died at 78, but had a bright spirit, always laughing and joking, but full of good virtues. This guy has the same kind of steadfast kindness. I like that.)

I know that people say he hasn’t done enough, but then I read everything he has done so far and I think that he is saying things that no one has ever dared to say before. He speaks of things the Vatican has always wanted to sweep under the rug. I’m sure there are some Vatican people who don’t like his forward-thinking approach to creating a more inclusive and welcoming Catholic church in the world, but I’m glad he’s brave enough to speak of the sex abuse scandal without mincing words. On this visit, he spoke of women having a more visible role in the church, which is something I think would be wise indeed. I don’t expect things will happen instantaneously, but I am pleased that he speaks up and reminds rich bishops and cardinals of what their true role ought to be, as servants of Christ. He has to begin somewhere. At least he’s begun….it’s a start.

Yeah, so….that’s August and September for me. Quite a mishmash of thoughts, I know. I’ll be better in my next post, which I promise will be better formulated.



Our last day took us to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s most amazing palace. It’s about an hour outside of St. Petersburg and parts of it echo the design of Versailles. (There is a hall of mirrors that takes its lead from France.) It’s a gorgeous building, all yellow with white trim, and gardens that are simply beautiful. It is often recognized for its beautiful fountains, all cascades down a couple of hills in the ‘backyard.’ There are also lovely rows of linden trees, all perfectly trimmed, that line one side of the palace.

What I learned about Peter the Great: he loved how Amsterdam looked, so he often tried to bring that architectural essence to St. Petersburg; he had ideas (like building a city named after himself or even building a fortress in a poor place for defence purposes) and then often acted on them without thinking them through; he had a cruel streak, and executions were not uncommon if you ticked him off; he was exceptionally tall for his time period in history, and many say he was 6’8″; and, interestingly, he had a window at Peterhof where he could see if any Dutch or English ships were sailing towards him over the Gulf of Finland. He liked to sneak down, board the ships, and then pretend he was just a sailor. Often, the captains and crew knew it was him, just based on rumours of his extreme height, but played along to humour him. Then, he would bring them all back up the hill to his palace, where he might introduce them to his wife, Catherine.

About twenty minutes before you reach Peterhof, you pass by a lovely building on the right hand side of the road. It is the place where Vladimir Putin has created an official presidential residence, in case the capital of Russia is ever moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. (The locals call it “Putinhof,” but you can’t really get a sense of it from the road. It looks impressive, and I’m sure it’s beautiful too, but it’s private and used for official visits by foreign dignitaries.)

Peterhof is fabulous, but vast. You aren’t allowed to take photos, you have to check your coats and bigger bags in cloak rooms, and you are shuffled through by Russian women who guard each room. You also have to put paper booties (like the blue ones we wear in Ontario hospitals if someone is in isolation) over your shoes. The floors are beautiful, obviously, with great tile and wood work designs, so the booties are there to protect the floors. I did, though, wonder about the slip factor. I tended to slide around a bit. :(

After we finished at Peterhof, we headed back into St. Petersburg to see the Church of the Spilled Blood, which was raised on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. It’s a beautiful building on the outside, but on the inside it reminded me of what it might be like to be on the inside of a kaleidoscope, all gorgeous jewel toned mosaics and high domes that seemed to raise your eyes up to heaven. (The only thing, again, was the crush of people. There seems no way to avoid masses of tourists here, and getting up at dawn to get to such historical places still doesn’t ensure that you will have a bit of quiet.)

Tonight, a few of us went to see a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” It was so beautiful. The Imperial Hermitage Theatre is one that was frequented by Catherine the Great, who lived from 1729-1796. She was Empress of Russia and married Peter III, who was the grandson of Peter the Great. (I know, it’s confusing, this Russian royal lineage!) In both the Winter Palace tour yesterday, and at Peterhof today, we learned about her sense of style. The rooms she decorated are mostly white, and not very fussy. Peter the Great’s daughter, though, Princess Elizabeth, loved everything done up in mirrors and gold. (She is famously remembered for worrying about which dresses to wear, how to do her hair up, and what her portraits looked like.) Catherine the Great was a hard worker, following in Peter the Great’s footsteps, and she often worked eight hour days in her office on political affairs. It figures that she would also love theatre and the arts!

The Imperial Hermitage Theatre is part of the Winter Palace, which is part of the Hermitage complex. (So much art, so little time!). St. Petersburg is often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” with lovely little canals splitting up certain parts of the city. The theatre, though, sits across the road from the River Neva. It is like a little jewel of sorts.

The design of the theatre is lovely. There is a little orchestra pit section, with a balustrade separating the musicians from the audience, and the stage hovers a bit above the heads of the musicians. Throughout it all, I kept thinking of how the structure seemed both literal and metaphorical. (These are the kinds of things my head goes on about when I’m watching something on a stage…) Above, on stage, the lovely story of a young man who falls in love with a swan princess, and a stage full of beautiful colours and costumes, and amazing ballet moves. Below, in the orchestra pit, a group of musicians who do this for a living. They trundled in a bit close to the start up, with one violinist shoving her purse under her chair nonchalantly. Another guy, the percussionist, leaned against a balustrade as he waited for his part, until his friend nudged his arm off of it and gestured at the conductor. The ‘leaner’ shrugged, moved his arm, and then returned to his job of drumming.

It all seemed, to me, quite poignant. Here, in a theatre that Catherine the Great loved and frequently visited, hundreds of years after her time, a bunch of tourists from around the world trying to pretend they were posh and cultured. Throughout it all, the musicians living life, providing music for the dancers above. While the dancers have to “keep their faces on” for the audience, for the sake of creating an illusion, the musicians can roll their eyes, or speak under their breath to one another, or give a quick kiss of greeting to a fellow oboe player in passing, before beginning.

I found myself watching the musicians more than the dancers at times….and perhaps this is one thing I’ve learned from seeing parts of St. Petersburg. There is always a veneer on things of historical import, but there is also always an ‘underneath’ with many stories. I thought, today, of thinking of this city as being somewhat like an onion. There are many layers, many stories, many many people, but there is not one correct interpretation. This is what stymies me a bit, but what doesn’t really shock or surprise me. It is not what it seems, to the outsider, but perhaps this is what makes it all the more intriguing.

I’m headed homewards tomorrow and will look forward to seeing my two furballs, Sable and Gully. I also will enjoy being able to drink water from taps again, and am again so thankful for the ability to call Canada my home. For all the times I travel, and for all of the wonderful things I see, and the amazing people I meet, I always begin to long for the scent of pine, the nattering of the squirrels, the friendly people in my hometown. Maybe, just maybe, we travel to see the world, but then find ourselves in new ways, rediscovering our gratitude for home, in the very journey we have undertaken.

Now….home….my dogs…some music….cold water….wind chimes, wine, poetry and friends. And writing. Always writing. :)


First thing this morning, we travelled around the city to see a couple of beautiful churches. Russian Orthodox churches are impressive, but leave me longing for the ones we saw in Scandinavia, and the ones I’ve seen in Ireland, Scotland and England. (The gold leaf gets old after a couple of churches, but the mosaic doesn’t. The icons are amazing, but I miss the lines of pews, places where you can sit and pray. Here, there are masses of people….swarming through these places. It’s hard to find a bit of quiet, unless you linger by an open doorway, or rush into the next room ahead of everyone else.)

St. Peter and Paul Cathedral is a beautiful baroque building that was created between 1712-33 as the main cathedral in the new capital of the Russian Empire. This is the place where most of Russia’s rulers are buried, including Peter the Great and the Romanovs. People still leave fresh flowers on his grave, and on the graves of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were assassinated. You’ll likely remember, if you like European history, that their bodies weren’t found or properly identified until the 1990s. Once identified by DNA testing, they were interred in the small chapel of St. Catherine on July 17, 1998. It’s the saddest part of this church, in my mind. It’s roped off, with a couple of blank grave markers for two of the tsar’s children who are still off being identified via DNA testing. It feels incomplete, brutal, and raw.

In opposition, oddly, there is a cathedral cat which sits on a chair near some dead tsar’s grave. That cat has been there for ten years. It sleeps on the chair and I suppose that the staff of the church feed it, but it seemed out of place. In some ways, though, I guess you could think that maybe the cat is a symbol of how life goes on. (Cats are a big thing in St. Petersburg. There is a street in the centre of the city where there are two cat statues high up near opposite windows. There are also a lot of cat tote bags and cat stacking dolls. It’s strange, and I won’t pretend to have figured out why they fancy them so much, but I will research it at some point.)

From the cathedral, we went into the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison. Our guide called the Bolshevik Revolutionaries “terrorists,” which I found interesting. (Earlier in the morning, my friend Dan had asked about the Russian view of the situation in the Ukraine. Then, the guide had said that most Russians support Putin in his attempts to gather in Russian people who just happen to live in the Ukraine. He also said that the view of Gorbachev in the 1990s (from inside Russia) was that the west was all taken in by what he called “Gorbamania.” Then, he went on to say that Putin is mostly loved by Russians. Yesterday, I was surprised to see a young man, maybe in his early 20s, wearing a t-shirt with Putin’s torso on it, dressed in a suit, with the caption: “One and Only.” It isn’t hard to see that the views inside Russia are different from the views we see in Canadian media.)

Anyway, back to the prison. I found the history about the Bolshevik Revolution pretty fascinating and want to do more reading when I get back home. I did a history and English degree in my 20s, but it’s been a while now, and I feel my brain is rusty. The cells for ‘regular prisoners’ were surprisingly large, with a window. They were allowed to read and smoke. The only time these privileges were taken away was if they were in solitary confinement, when they were only allowed to read the Bible, and not permitted to smoke at all. Our guide told us about one prisoner who lived in the prison for about twenty-two years simply because the warden had lost his papers. The man lost his mind there, even losing his ability to speak or communicate. It really isn’t a nice place. The solitary cells are extremely awful, echoing and aching, dark and without any light.

This afternoon we went to visit The Hermitage, which is actually a vast series of museums. We only saw a fraction of it, but the part we did see was in The Winter Palace. I found the rooms more fascinating than the actual art works. (I’ve been drawn to windows and doors during this trip, taking photos of them, as well as of floor and ceiling patterns. I’m not sure what this says about me, if you were to psychoanalyze me, but there are almost too many photos of that ilk on my phone and camera.)

The Hermitage visit, while interesting, was stressful. I don’t do well with masses of people pressing up against me, and there are a number of tourists-of-the-world out there who seem to not follow basic courtesy. Guides warn you to watch out for pickpockets, but it’s hard to do that when you are pressed up against four or five different people on all sides of you, and you have no space at all to move or breathe in. (Of course, then I got thinking….how quickly would a zombie plague spread in The Hermitage? Quickly. How quickly would any scary disease spread? Quickly. Then, I talked myself down and ducked into another room to take a hit of my asthma puffer….because it felt like I was either headed for an asthma or anxiety attack. Yeah, I’m cool like that…one more reason I’m single. ;)

Tonight, we went to see a folklore show at the Winter Palace, in a little theatre built to entertain one of the Russian princesses. Anyway, we had to wait at the bottom of a flight of stairs, in a gorgeous building, for the last group of people to come out of the first show. It seemed reasonable until it turned into a bloody mosh pit. (Listen, I’ve seen U2 twice now in major stadiums, but I have never seen tourists lose their shit in a beautiful historic palace. Tonight, I did. It wasn’t pretty.) The seats were not reserved, so we were told to rush up two flights of red carpeted marble stairs and then find seats close to the stage. Our group of eight figured out a strategy. Four of us would go ahead in a calm manner and then sprint to find seats, while the other four would follow as quickly as possible. What we didn’t expect was a fellow trying to smuggle his girlfriend in through the lined up crowd which now filled the lobby. Before you knew it, people were booing, the two security guards pushed the girlfriend away, back into the lobby and the guy yelled out “We’re not going to see the show! We’re just having dinner!” as if any patiently waiting person would love or accept that excuse.

All of the sudden, there was a pressure behind me. People were pushing forward. One guard told a few of our group to go up the staircase ahead, so they did. When that happened, an entire three busloads of tourists swarmed the staircase, moving from left to right. I was on the right hand side, stuck between some stupid gates that were meant to control the crowd. In all my life, I have never seen anything so awful. My new friend Morgan, who is in his late 70s and early 80s, nearly had quite a fall. I kept trying to push back at the people behind me, but to no avail. The only way to move was forward, and it wasn’t at all safe. It was like being carried upwards in a crush of people….not of your own accord. I kept thinking, stupidly, that I could talk to the people behind me. “It’s the theatre, for God’s sake! Stop pushing!” but I’ve never been a mosh pit girl so I didn’t understand that the push from behind is something that comes from far back, not from directly behind your back. There would be no logical arguing of facts…who knew Russian folkloric dancing and singing could cause such a riot?

Once we got upstairs and into the theatre, people rushed for seats. If the theatre had only assigned seats, it might have worked more courteously and safely. I’m surprised they haven’t thought about how assigning seats could reduce accidents and maintain some sense of decorum. It baffles my mind.

The show itself was amazing. Mad, frenzied dancing and lovely choral singing. The irony was that, in turning around to look at the other people watcing the performance, I found everyone pretending to be proper! These were the same swarm of people, from China, Israel, Italy, and Germany (from the guide signs I saw hovering), who just minutes before had nearly squished me. Bizarre!

So…my impressions of St. Petersburg: when the sun is shining, things look beautiful, but when it’s rainy, it feels sad; the Amsterdam-inspired buildings that Peter the Great loved to build are lovely, but the blocks and blocks of apartments built in the 20th century reinforce how rough it must have been here in Russia; the river is beautiful, and places within the city look a lot like Venetian canals; I like borscht, and, um, well, I like that Pushkin is still talked about proudly here.

Tomorrow we go out to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s beloved ‘getaway palace.’ Based on today’s disorganized chaos, I’m expecting to see a great historic place bogged down with masses of humans…and I know I’ll want to give a lesson in courtesy. (Since when in any part of the world is it okay to take out an elderly man, or squish someone, or bounce into them and knock them out of the way just to take a selfie in front of a piece of art? It isn’t….) It seems to me that, while Scandinavia was busy with tourists at the various historic sites and museums and churches, things seemed better organized. Maybe tours were scheduled, so that they weren’t pushed up against one another, or staff marshalled groups through with a bit of timing. Today, it was chaos…and the pushing is just too much.

After Peterhof tomorrow, we are going to see Swan Lake. I’m praying there is assigned seating because I’d like to at least pretend I’m traveling back in time. I can’t do that if people body check me out of the way….it takes me out of my mind and imagination too much.


Left Helsinki at a reasonable hour this morning. Shifted from a tour of many people, to a group of just twelve of us. It’s been nice getting to know people more thoroughly now, having time to chat as we tour together.

All started well this morning in Helsinki. We said goodbye to our various travel companions who were headed back to America this morning. Then we went to the train station with our new guide, Timofei, and got on a fast train to St. Petersburg. The trip took 3.5 hours, but it was (unfortunately) eventful.

We were all a bit nervous about crossing into Russia. There is no big fanfare, but you are not permitted to take any photos of the border. Before you leave Finland, the border guards come in with their dog and sweep the train, but also take account of your passport details. A little while later, the Russian border guards come in and do the same thing. It can be a bit daunting.

Our tour guide told us to check the dates on our Russian Visas. Our friend, Dot, realized that hers had an initiation date of Thursday, July 23. Not good, as today is Wednesday, July 22. She told our tour guide, he went off to speak with a Finnish guard and then came back to tell her that she would not be allowed into Russia today.

It was quite a shock. We had about ten minutes to try and get her connected to the right people and information. It was hectic, and scary, and upsetting for Dot. We all felt horrible. We did get her a list of hotels near the train station, information about trains into St. Petersburg tomorrow morning, and promised to guard her bags. Then, before we knew it, she had been left at a little Finnish town close to the border. We pick her up tomorrow morning at the train station, on the way to our tour of the city. Then, in the afternoon, we’ll hang out at the Hermitage for a few hours. Tomorrow night, we’re going to take part in a show called (yes, it’s true!) “Feel Yourself Russian.” Mostly, though, we’re all thinking of Dot tonight and hoping she’s well. Thankful, too, tonight….for technology. Cell phones and ipads come in handy when you’re having a travel crisis.

When we arrived, we met up for a quick walking tour of part of the city, taking the extremely crowded St. Petersburg metro to get into the centre of town. (I can say that I do not like steep subway tunnels, or crushing, roiling masses of people thronging around me….especially in a small subway car that looks like it’s an antique.) We also went to see one of the grand churches, the women walking through and having to ‘cover’ our heads with hoods and scarves. It seemed surreal, to see such grandeaur and beauty when there is obviously poverty here. The church we saw was beautiful and I’m looking forward to seeing a couple of other churches so I can light a candle for Mum and Dad, as well as buy a small icon for myself. They are beautiful here, all bright colours and silver or gold inlaid.

Finally….the water: the city doesn’t have the best water, so hotels leave you two complimentary bottles in your hotel room fridge each day. You can only brush your teeth with bottled water. You also have to drink bottled water. You can take showers but you literally still need to keep your mouth closed. Not the nicest thing to think about, but obviously a city-wide issue, so we trundle onwards…dreaming of drinking excessively large amounts of water.

Tomorrow, it’s all about us getting our New Orleans spitfire, Dot, back on tour. Then, we’re off!


Arriving in Helsinki on an overnight ferry from Stockholm yesterday morning was rough. Sleep has mostly escaped me here. I’m an insomniac at the best of times, but I think this sleeplessness in Scandinavia (without Tom Hanks) has to do with this “White Nights” phenomenon, with the sun partially setting and a misty twilight dusk settling over skies from about 11:30pm and then brightly rising around 4am. Your internal clock gets confused. (Also, these Baltic ferries sway a lot through the night. Images of Titanic flash through your mind when the seas get rough at 3:14am and you sit bolt upright in a little tiny cabin wondering where the hell you are exactly. I should admit, also, that the fact that the Stockholm-Helsinki ferry dispenses white wine from the soft drink machine for free doesn’t help. Two glasses of wine in and I thought I might fall asleep, but not true….)

Helsinki’s harbour isn’t gorgeous, but neither are any of the other ports we’ve seen on this trip. Its skyline is different, though, and the architecture changes dramatically from the sweet colours and shapes of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. It is ‘blockier’ in structure and, while I’m aware of Finland’s historical relationship to Russia, I don’t really intend for this to come across as a pun. At first, for most of yesterday, and in contrast to Tallinn today, this put me off Helsinki.

Yesterday afternoon was interesting, as I wandered down to the centre of town to check out Finland’s largest bookstore. It was amazing. Then, I just kept on walking and found little artist shops, talking with fabric and wood artisans along the way, asking them annoying questions, and just getting a sense of the place. As I walked further away from the harbour, then I could see more of the spirit of the place and the people, but I still wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t what I’d imagined from what I’d remembered of what my maternal grandmother had told me about it before she’d died in 1998. She raved about Finland, but more about Petsamo in the north, where my grandfather had worked in mining. She had loved the people and the landscape. I remember how she would tell me stories, when I visited with her, and how her face would light up. (She had the best way of telling stories….and a wonderful laugh that I still miss seventeen years later.)

Today, we travelled on another ferry to Tallinn, Estonia, which is a two hour journey from here. The average monthly income of a citizen in Helsinki is about 2,500 Euro a month, while the income of someone who lives in Tallinn is just around 1,000. This means that a lot of people from Tallinn take that ferry across to Helsinki to work here and make more money. They do this each day. Four hours each day. It’s not a comfortable journey and there are hardly enough seats for people, so many passengers find little spots to sit in corners of corridors, or perched on deck chairs on upper decks. (They also like to buy beer at 7:30 in the morning and tend to smoke a lot up there, so I stayed inside.)

Moving from Helsinki to Tallinn is like that scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy goes from black and white to technicolour. Both Finland and Estonia were separated by years of Soviet rule. Now, though, Estonia has ventured in the EU and things are different.

I loved Tallinn. There are churches, with assorted spires from different historical periods. The Unesco-protected Old Town is a 14th and 15th century labyrinth of quirky alleyways and cobblestones. (You find yourself always wanting to look up, but know if you do that you might hurt yourself by tripping on cobbles that are of varying heights and shapes.) Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is everything you’d imagine you might see in Moscow. It’s a 19th-century Russian Orthodox cathedral with telltale onion domes. So beautiful! Then, you go inside and you see tiny old women wearing headscarves and saying prayers. It feels as if you’ve slipped back in time somehow….until one of the old ladies elbows you to get out after she’s done her prayers. :)

We saw the Canadian embassy, which was pretty interesting. It was hidden down a little alleyway and is apparently one of the most haunted embassies in Tallinn. Then, Dan, Michelle, Dot and I went to lunch at an old medieval hall restaurant called Olde Hansa. It was like entering into an episode of Game of Thrones….I kept wishing I had a dragon! :)

Spending the day in Tallinn was like walking into a painting of some kind, all medieval and colourful and alive. Coming back to Helsinki felt ‘flat’ somehow. (Kind of like how my grandmother used to give us ‘flat’ gingerale to settle our stomachs when we were ill as little kids.) Tonight, though, a bunch of us walked down into the town square and had dinner at a traditional Finnish restaurant. We met a wonderful woman named Anna, who regaled us with tales of Finnish history and culture. We ate in a room which was meant to remind diners of what a traditional Finnish farm house would have been like one hundred years ago. We laughed, drank, shared stories, and now part as new friends. (The crew from Wisconsin gets a shout out here! You haven’t had fun in life until you’ve partied with the cheeseheads! :)

Walking back to the hotel after dinner, seeing that lightened night sky above us, and hearing the sounds of so many languages being spoken around us, made me feel so grateful for what I’ve experienced on this trip so far. Tomorrow, a bunch of us head off to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a few days before returning home. Michelle just popped over to my room with a glass of coconut vodka, so I’m ready to sleep now, I hope….all looking forward to a short voyage into Russia.

What I’ve been reminded of again, though, is that sometimes what you think you see in front of you isn’t really what is there….my standoffishness in terms of Helsinki was badly placed. Tonight, listening to Anna, and asking her questions about the mines in Northern Finland, I felt connected in a new way. I could sense my grandmother there with me, reminding me to be mindful, to observe, to listen, to not judge. I learn more that way, and I should have remembered that she was the one who first taught me that grand life lesson all of those years ago.

Now, going home soon to work on my novel again, I’ll think of new and better ways to write the chapters that I’ve set here in Finland, having a better sense of how it works, historically, culturally, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of the Finnish people.



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