Waterways, Tsars, and Vodka: To Russia!

First things first: I am a consummate waterbug. Put me anywhere near water and you won’t see me for a few hours because I’ll be in, next to, or on top of the water. My whole adult life, ever since I left the lush and fragrant South, I keep returning to places with water in my travels…the beaches in Spain, the tiny island of Malta, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Asian and European cities along the water: all of these places, filled with the fresh wetness of water, are invigorating, tropical, forested, and temperate places, and I adore them all. Though I’ve lived in the Sonoran Desert for the past seven years, a place too many assume (mistakenly, I’ll add) to be a dry and desolate arid land without plants, I dream of water, hike miles to get to water in the Catalina mountains, take extra long showers and eagerly await our monstrous and wonderful monsoon season, just so I can smell the sweetness of the mesquite and the brightness of the desert flowers after they’ve been doused in summer rains.

But I have never been on a cruise.

Second, I have also yearned to bring my mom with me on my travels for a very long time. All those years ago, when I started writing, I wrote for me, yes, but I also wrote for my mom and dad, to bring them along with me on my crazy rides, to remind them that I loved them, to have ears for my incessant stories, to keep connected to my home in some small way. Though I’ve never completely understood how they have time for this, my parents have read–and I do not exaggerate this–everything I’ve ever written. Not all the drafts and journals, but every school paper, every blog post, every published article, even, yes, my unwieldy and super heavy 300+ page dissertation. They are the only audience I’ve ever had who has literally seen me through everything, and for this, I am forever and eternally grateful. But there’s something that’s always nagged at me: How could I, the daughter who was set free into the world by her mom’s cajoling 10 years ago (thank you, mom!), fill up the pages of her passport while her mom did not even have one?

So when I learned that I had the chance to sail with Viking River Cruises this summer, and that I could bring one guest, these two worlds collided in a beautiful serendipity: I could have my water, and I could have my mom. When I called to invite her, the first thing I said to her was,

“Mom, you need to go get a passport.”

And she said, “Why? Where are we going?”

And when I told her Russia, I could almost feel her eyes bulge. “With me? Are you sure?”

Followed by my dad’s voice coming from the kitchen, “St. Petersburg! Doesn’t it stay light there all the time in the summer?” Leave it to dad to know something off the cuff about the weather in St. Petersburg.

And, three months later, here we are, two days away from our respective flights across the Atlantic that will take us to a country that spans nine time zones. A country I know little about save for what I’ve learned in history classes, popular culture, and popular movie and television renditions. It’s time to see what else is out there, to hear from the voices on the ground, to see those beautiful spires of Imperial Russia and to learn what it must have been like to live under Communist regime. To see what modern-day Russia looks, feels, sounds, and smells like.

In anticipation, I asked my friend Olga (who I met two years ago in Malaysia and who lives in Moscow) to help me prepare by teaching me a few important Russian phrases. Here’s what I’ve got in my little book so far:

  • Spasibo-thank you
  • Pozhaluista-you are welcome
  • Privet-hi
  • Kak dela?-How are you?

Hopefully, by the end of our two weeks together, I’ll have a few more words in my repertoire of Russian vocabulary.

Mom, are you ready for this? 🙂

The Lowdown: Where We’re Headed

The cruise is sandwiched between the two renowned cities of Russia: St. Petersburg to the north and Moscow to the south. Though I can’t wait to see these great cities, I’m fascinated by what lies between. Cities with names like Mandrogy, Yaroslavl, and Uglich….places that remain completely unfamiliar to me. In a lot of my research (and as you’ll see in the photos below that I snagged from Flickr’s creative commons), all I could find were monuments and buildings. And while monuments and buildings are surely important parts of a country’s living history, I would really like to know what life is like around and behind those structures.

What are the Russians talking about? What’s on their minds? What is a day in the life like? For instance, if someone came to Arizona and all they did was take back photos of the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona, no one would have any idea what people like me do everyday in our work and play time.

That said, I’m incredibly excited to have this unique opportunity to get up close and personal with these waterways and what these Golden Ring towns hold with their ancient monasteries and tiny river villages. My mom and I will be cruising together for thirteen long days, sailing for many of them and stopping over for a few nights in the major cities.

Viking River Cruise’s map of their Waterways of the Tsars cruise leaving from St. Petersburg

Here’s a little list of what we’re planning to do while we’re in each city. Of course, with the way I travel, this list will surely change with my whims 🙂

St. Petersburg, Russia (4 Days)

In our first few days in St. Petersburg, otherwise known as “The City of 300 Bridges,” we plan to see the 18th century rococco-inspired Catherine Palace (picture below); do an up-close walking tour, see a Russian ballet performance, check out the Peterhof Palace (I’ve heard it has amazing landscaped gardens!), visit a kommunalka commune, and take an evening boat cruise. In-between these outings with Viking, I’m going to have to squeeze in a side trip to the Russian Museum of Erotica, where I’ll be on assignment getting up close and personal with Rasputin. More on that to come 🙂

Flickr/Lyn Gateley
Flickr/Lyn Gateley

Mandrogy, Russia (1 Day)

We’re making a quick stop in this little village on the Svir River, and while here, I plan to don my bathing suit and try out a Russian bath house (also called a banya). If we have time, we might do a matroyshka doll painting class in the local craft village.

Flickr/Larry Koester
Flickr/Victor Nuno
Flickr/Victor Nuno

Kizhi, Russia (1 Day)

All I really want to see on Kizhi island is this magnificent church below–it’s both an UNESCO World Heritage Site and an architectural feat. It was built without a single nail!

Flickr/Paula Funnell
Flickr/Paula Funnell
Flickr/Paula Funnell
Flickr/Paula Funnell

Kuzino, Russia (1 Day)

Kuzino is rumored to have some beautiful monasteries and art work from the 12th century. Very excited to see some of these wooden chapels. We’re also planning on visiting with children at a local school, but I’m not sure exactly what that will entail. I’ll keep you posted!

Flickr/Paul Koester



Yaroslavl, Russia (1 Day)

One of the Golden Ring cities, we’ll be going to a farmer’s market, handicraft village, and visiting the church below, which apparently has incredible frescoes and Russian icons.

Flickr/Alexxx Malev
Flickr/Alexxx Malev
Flickr/Alexxx Malov
Flickr/Alexxx Malov

Uglich, Russia (1 Day)

Uglich will entail walking tours, a couple more churches (like this super cute one with the blue and gold-starred domes!), and an afternoon tea.

Flickr/Alexxx Malov
Flickr/Alexxx Malov
Flickr/Juan Carlos GarcĂ­a Lorenzo
Flickr/Juan Carlos GarcĂ­a Lorenzo

Moscow, Russia (4 Days)

Finally, Moscow. In our days here, we plan to do an up-close walking tour, attend a folklore concert, walk around the old city, take a Jewish Moscow tour to learn about some of the important sites of the Jewish people who settled here, visit with my friend Olga, and head to the famous Kremlin (see picture below).

Of course, any city trip–especially with my mom!–will entail lots of people-watching, trying new foods, and getting lost on side streets.

Flickr/Knut-Arve Simonsen
Flickr/Knut-Arve Simonsen
Flickr/Tigran Ispiryan
Flickr/Tigran Ispiryan

If you’re interested, check out the full itinerary here on Viking’s website.

Yours in travel,


All photographs from Flickr’s Creative Commons. I thank them for their generosity and I hope my photos turn out just as beautifully!

I’m excited to be traveling to Russia with Viking River Cruises on their 2015 Waterways of the Tsars cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. 

New Orleans Street Music

Though I remember this mostly from photographs, I think I first picked up a pair of church handbells in kindergarten, of tones, I think, in B flat and C.  I remember I liked these bells because they weren’t the teeny tiny tinny ones, and they weren’t the super-heavy ones that the boys had to play, or the ones the girls had to hurl up with their whole bodies. They also got played a lot, so I never got bored standing there following the bars and wondering when I’d be able to chime in with my ring. I remember playing my small two-belled parts in some of my favorite Biblical hymns, sometimes even accompanying my mom’s 120-voice choir, sitting underneath the tiered seats, banging out those bells in a forte that was probably a little too strong.

In seventh grade, I begged my mom, a lifelong musician herself, to buy me a flute, and I joined the school band. I took lessons at a local music school. Unlike a lot of my peers at school, I loved practicing scales–the repetition of it, the predictable nature of it, the full-bodied, high-pitched trills that happened, magically, when I reached those high octaves and didn’t squeak.


I sang, too, ever since I knew how to put words together and string them into complete thoughts. I sang throughout school, in the car, in the shower, to my favorite CDS (and then my favorite .mp3s, and then my favorite Pandora streams). And I lived my teenage years through music, as many of us do, faithfully attending every single Incubus concert I could afford in the Southeast (truth be told, I probably went to a LOT more Incubus concerts than my meager hostess salary afforded me, but alas, I digress). I attended a million punk and ska concerts with my best friend Rachel, and we followed bands around like we did trendy shoes, buying them up, wearing them for a while, and then flitting on to the next big thing. And then we went to college, where Rachel would study music business at a tiny Christian school in Nashville, the land of country music and mandolins, and I would study Comparative Literature in Athens, Georgia, where more Southern rock bands call home than anywhere else in the country. (my nostalgia recalls many a Widespread Panic and Phish concert in those tree-lined Southern streets and in the historic walls of the Georgia Theater).

Something weird, happened, though, between those high school and college years. I put down instruments and I stopped singing.




Like many kids, it started around 10th grade, when, suddenly, it was no longer cool to tote a metal flute case down the hallway. I still wanted to play music, I desperately did, but I didn’t want the rest of the halls of my high school to know, because, unlike the rest of those band nerds, I was too cool for that (how many of us have said that before, am I right?). In an attempt to be both clandestine but still respectful to my instrument, I would stuff my flute case into my backpack, the tips of the oblong-sized case pressing up uncomfortably against the seams of the top and bottom of my already-packed backpack, and I would teeter down the hall, books in my arms instead. By the end of high school, I was second chair, meaning that I had solos in concerts, sat in the front row, and dressed up for the concerts.

And then, well, college came around and I tried to pick up the guitar instead. I was in Athens, after all; a place where the guitar is about as common a pastime as breathing. But my fingers also chapped, I could never pluck the strings fast enough, and I couldn’t catch up to friends of mine who’d been playing for years. There were banjos, mandolins, guitars, lutes, ukuleles….and lots of talented players behind their strings.

Sometime between then and now, I’d become an observer. Someone who watched, wistfully, from afar, who listened to music but didn’t participate in it. I’ve missed my music–I even see my acoustic guitar in the closet here, beside me, as I write this, and I think mournfully about all the songs that never got played.


Two weeks ago, I went to New Orleans with Ryan to attend a wedding, and these thoughts have lingered with me stronger than ever since I’ve been back. I knew New Orleans had a magnificent music scene (I wrote about it for Perceptive Travel, actually), and I knew, from popular culture, that musicians played in the streets in the historic French Quarter. But imagining and experiencing a thing often leaves an impossible abyss….there is nothing like walking through the sweat-filled humidity of those tropical New Orleans streets, watching the local musicians set up their equipment, lay out a bucket, a guitar case, or a basket for coins and dollar bills, and catching tourists take snapshots.

In the following photos where people are featured, I always asked before I took the picture, and I always left a gift for them as a small piece of gratitude.








To be honest, I didn’t really understand how much I actually missed playing music–as opposed to simply listening to it live–until I joined our friends’ second line to their wedding reception. From the Irish Cultural Museum to the art gallery where they had their Creole celebration set up, we marched through the streets behind a 3-piece brass band, enacting a very old West African tradition brought to Louisiana by slaves and merged with the military brass band parade traditions of the Europeans and white Americans, and I wove a white handkerchief in one hand and held my high heels in the other. As the 60 or so of us walked down those cobblestone streets, passing tourists, musicians, and other artists alike, I felt a reverence for this place and its inextricable link to music. Even know, I find it difficult to describe, this feeling of sound and place coalescing like that.



When we arrived at the gallery’s doors, and the musicians stood outside wiping sweat from their brows, I stopped the trumpet player and said thank you. He looked up, surprised, I think, that one of the wedding attendees had taken the second to personally recognize him, and I told him how lovely his artistry was. He smiled, knowingly at me, this once-upon-a-time musician, visiting his special Crescent City.


Yours in travel,


All photographs by me 🙂 A special thanks to the New Orleans CVB for helping me arrange accommodations for my stay in New Orleans.