St Pete – Moscow – Yalta
It is the last time Pasha waits for us outside the hotel. We’ve said goodbye and left presents for our hostesses (some of which have assumed an almost familial relationship with us by now). They also got up in the small hours to see us off. We fill the ‘troika’ with our suitcases and drive to the airport. Tanya – suddenly very much in charge – is panicking slightly and I’m feeling very tired and very ill as well as very frightened of plane-deafness which is made worse when I travel with a cold. Pasha walks us to our terminal and Tanya insists that we take our luggage to be wrapped up in cellophane, especially if we haven’t got keys and locks for it. Margaret asks Pasha for his address and he takes her notebook and goes to sit down on a bench where he starts writing. I kind of feel quite sad. Tanya is shouting for us to get going. We say goodbye to Pasha and proceed down a path of multiple X-rays and security checks. I decide to carry one of my bags with chocolate gifts with me onto the plane, although it is quite heavy because it now also contains my newly acquired books.
I hate this entire trip as I’m not feeling well at all. This is made worse when on arrival in Moscow we are huddled together in a mass of sweaty passengers waiting for some gates to open and let us through to pick up our luggage. This goes on for ever and becomes one of my least favourite moments of the trip.
To cut a long story short – ha! ;-) – after much queuing, form-filling and utter suffering, we eventually arrive at Simferopol in Ukraine; then we wade through a flock of taxi-vultures and somehow manage to get a ride to Yalta.
Our hotel in Yalta is at the opposite extreme to the one in St Pete. This one actually has something like 15 floors and 2000 rooms (several casinos, restaurants and a cinema!) and has been described by Janet Malcolm (the writer of a book about a Chekhov pilgrimage which everyone apart from me has read) as an ‘example of spectacular ugliness’. She’s actually described the rooms and all of her experiences in great detail and everyone is really eager to find out how accurate she was. Our rooms are on the 11th floor – Neil’s and mine facing the sea, and Tanya’s and Margaret’s facing an open air dolphinarium. I like my room very much. It feels bright and has a lovely balcony. They are all more or less identical anyway. I dislike this Janet Malcolm and her condescending superiority complex straightaway – but that might be because I’m so tired and bad tempered.
When we’re reunited in order to draw some money and go to the restaurant – I find that everybody agrees with me about Janet Malcolm (and I think maybe she was actually tired and bad tempered herself when she arrived, which distorted her impressions for the worse) – so I feel better. For a bit we all sit down and do maths. In fact we all sit down and I do maths – doing complicated equations such as:
V 1E = 6.10G ۸ 10E = £7
=> £7 = 61G ۸ £10 = X
=> 7 : 61 = 10 : X
=> X = 610:7 = 87,1
And so in the absence of the up to date exchange rates, going via Euro, I work out that there are 87,1 Ukrainian Grivnas in £10 or 8,71 Grivnas in £1 and proceed to draw money from the hotel bankomat. Neil says I should have been the ‘banker’.
We stroll down a winding path going from the hotel through some fragrant gardens past kitschy restaurants into a black hole (which we’ve been advised to steer clear from at night). There are two kitschy restaurants on the right and we opt for one called The Café which looks less kitschy, where the door is permanently open for some reason even though it’s really cold and rainy, and smoking is not allowed inside. I continue to suffer and order copious amounts of green tea for which I have to keep ordering extra lemon. I can’t remember much about the food but I don’t think I enjoyed it. Tanya entertains us with a story about her mother who used to be a fashion designer in Soviet Russia, designing dresses out of (something we call the ‘balloon silk’), a material used for making rain-coats in the 1950s and 1960s. She tells us her mother was even sent to meet Christian Dior...