Friday, March 27, 2009

Inauspicious arrival

I arrive in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and yet, could this really be my hotel? If it had been 8pm instead of 8am I think I would have fled. I gingerly entered the "lobby" which wasn't much of an improvement: crumbling plaster, rutted and broken stone floor, electric wires looped loosely on the walls . But the B&B on the third floor itself was quite charming.

St Petersburg is BEAUTIFUL and well deserved of it's reputation as the "Venice of the North".

I started the day by walking up to the Peter and Paul Fortress, and visited the church with its (real) gold spire where the Tsars and their families were buried, including Nicholas II and Alexandra who were moved there about a dozen years ago from Yekaterinberg. It's a formidable place, similar to Cape Town Castle in its pentangle layout but bigger. It was a glorious sunny day but still the temperature was -6 yet a few brave people were breaking the ice to swim in the Neva River.

I went to see the Aurora, the battleship that launched the October revolution in 1917 by firing a blank round that signaled the attack on the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks.

The little wood cabin that Peter the Great help build with his own hands in three days was close by. He lived in this simple two room cottage for six months while he supervised the construction of St Petersburg. Over 100,000 people lost their lives from exposure and disease during the construction.

In the evening as snow gently fell around me, I walked home past the Summer Palace and along small streets crammed with antique shops and second hand books stores and found a really cool vegetarian internet cafe with delicious food and funky music and people, called Botanica. In another shop I bought several different kinds of exotic Russian teas, including the sewn bouquets of flowers that open up in glass teapots. There are mases of young people about, some with purple mohawks. I felt totally at home, and finally overcame my fear of trying to communicate. All the young people here speak a little English.

There is a lot on including the La Traviata, Romeo and Juliet and Giselle. Of course I have to see Giselle at the Mariinsky. The hotel receptionist has offered to buy a ticket for me so I won't have to pay the exorbitant foreigner's price.

Tomorrow I still have a lot to see- starting with the Hermitage.

Here are some photographs which give a more typical and much better impression of this magnificent city.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My day at the International School of Moscow

I spent the day working with groups broken into different age levels. After introducing and reading one my books set in Haiti to the children in the first and second grades, excitement mounted as the children divided into their school teams to see who could paint the most beautiful Tap-Tap, the decorated trucks that serve as buses on the rutted island roads. The children at this school, like me, have grown up all over the world. It's very reassuring and inspiring to witness this kind of enthusiastic cooperation among such a diverse group of young children. To learn more about the day and the school, visit The International School of Moscow website.

(Photos by Ashley Andrews)

Back to winter

Made it to Moscow! On my first day, I was shown around by a teacher from the International School. First stop of course was Red Square. The Kremlin was predictably unpredictably shut, so was Lenin's tomb, but we did get to visit St Basil's and the Kremlin Museum. Ivan the Terrible built St Basil's to commemorate the defeat of the Tatars, and the story has it that the builders and engineers did such a magnificent job that they were put to death for their efforts to ensure that no other basilica could ever rival this one.

In spite of the bleak weather, the square was dotted with brides in wedding finery posing for photographs, apparently a tradition. We hurried into Gum to escape the cold and grab some lunch, and were followed by at least a dozen brides and their consorts, who continued their photo shoot around us. It was a veritable floor show. The brides looked very happy, even for brides. Apparently there are seven women to every man in Moscow.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Not an international conspiracy...

I know we all have days like this. Everything seems to be conspiring against one. The Russian Consulate in Paris insists that I apply for my visa in person. Air France won't let me fly out of Paris to Moscow without first flying up from Toulouse, the hotel in Paris won't let me cancel a booking made half an hour earlier without a 100% cancellation fee, the French railways are going on strike on Thursday all resulting in a huge and exasperating waste of time and money. So I made a cup of tea and was enticed outside by lovely spring birdsong. Suddenly I noticed that the sun has burst open the tight buds on the my prune trees, and when I went a little closer, my neighbours spring lambs came running over to greet me. Sometimes, we need to remember that we are not necessary Kafkaesque targets of bureaucratic red tape. We just need to calm down and get a little perspective. To be continued...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Really RED tape

Next Friday I hope to fly to Moscow. One of the nice things about my "job" is visiting schools, especially International Schools. A few years ago I was invited to the International School in Kenya. Apparently a lot of author/illustrators are wary of traveling to distant countries to speak to school children, but I love it.

Many years ago, my flight to London from Tokyo stopped in Moscow to refuel. It took a whole day to fly over the Soviet Union, and from the air it looked like a beautiful country: forests, lakes and dachas. Being a fan of Russian literature, I have always wanted to visit, and now here, I think, is my chance.

It took weeks to organise the invitation. (I loved seeing my name written in Cyrillic.) Now I have to go to Paris a few days early to convince the Russian Consulate into giving me a visa.

The Soviet Union might be relegated to the dustbin of history, but seems to me that the Russian tape couldn't be redder.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Home in France. I was pleased to find that the drawing group had met in my absence. Clare organised a great evening in her village, Gorse, on Monday night, inviting musician friends to play for us as we attempted to capture the spirit of the music. Not easy, as the jigs were so fabulous that we had to practically sit on our feet to control our wildly tapping toes. The group calls themselves Les Fausses Celtics, and you can find out more about them and listen to them play here: