August 5, 2011

A view from the bridge ... of the Lenin Icebreaker Museum.

Early breakfast, last-minute packing, goodbye to the staff and crew and new friends we have made. Three kisses, traditional Russian style, to Elya, the Poseidon representative who has taken so much time to explain the inner workings of the cruise, and whose camaraderie has meant a lot to me on the long voyage. And cheer-o to Vlad, me Anglo-Russo mate. We board buses for the trip into Murmansk and a city tour, which begins with the Lenin icebreaker museum. Some people are a little amused, or less so, about stepping off one icebreaker and onto another, but it’s a chance to compare the older ship, the first of its kind, with the modern vessel we have just left.

The Yuri Gagarin exhibit at the Murmansk natural history museum.

Then it’s off to the small natural history museum, which contains many interesting exhibits on geology, local life and the port’s role in World War II. I wander off from the group, which I’m often wont to do, and that is fortuitous, since time doesn’t permit them to see the entire museum. Alone on the fourth floor, I discover something that brings me full circle from the very beginning of this blog: A small room is dedicated to Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space, including the parachute that brought him back to earth. It is almost as though his adventurous spirit was there to see me off at the beginning, and is now welcoming me back.

A gate beside the Meridian Hotel. Note the bas-relief of Lenin at top left. He's everywhere in Murmansk.

We ride the bus on a tour of Murmansk, which, if truth be told, is a drab industrial city with a declining population of about 307,000 people, down from 468,000 in 1989, which actually fosters a low unemployment rate. The city has historically been a military and commercial seaport. Because of its location so far north, it has a harsh climate and little or no daylight for six months of the year, which lowers the average life expectancy compared with Russians elsewhere. Residents are therefore allowed to retire five years earlier than the average Russian, at age 60 for men and 55 for women, and schools have a shorter year.

Many people in Russia are dissatisfied with the direction their country has taken since perestroika and the advent of capitalism, and for several years there has been a nostalgia of sorts for the old ways. Murmansk is in a time warp of sorts, something like an anachronistic living museum of Soviet history. The hammer-and-sickle and statues of V.I. Lenin abound, though there is no shortage of shopping malls and cell phone purveyors. Oddly enough, it has a sister-city relationship with Jacksonville, Fla.

The Monument to the Defenders of the Polar Region.

The colossal, heroic Monument to the Defenders of the Polar Region, with its eternal flame, is dedicated to the soldiers who defended the port in World War II.

In the afternoon we depart early for the flight to Helsinki, too early, some people complain, though the guides assure us that we have to beat the traffic, if any turns up. None does. Murmansk’s small airport is curiously deserted; it turns out that our charter is, believe it or not, the only flight scheduled that day. It is mainly a domestic airport; few international flights land or depart, mainly to Helsinki or Norway. I’m told that on some days, there are two simultaneous flights to or from Moscow and St. Petersburg, “which is really chaotic.”

“Really?” I ask. “Have you ever been to JFK?”

The Murmansk theater and concert hall.

To Helsinki and back

Helsinki by night.

Back in Helsinki, we are greeted by new Poseidon representatives, cheerful and efficient as usual, and smiling at our obvious fatigue. They will repeat the routine of checking in passengers and catering to their needs. Some of them will accompany the passengers to Murmansk and go back out on the next voyage. So the process will be repeated, like the movement of the tides, in and out, endlessly, beautifully, truly, madly, deeply.

My cabin mate Fred and I enjoy dinner at an outdoor café, where we watch the great, colorful show of socializing and flirting between tourists and the more attractive members of Helsinki’s population. The next afternoon, I will fly to New York and Fred will return by train to his part-time home in St. Petersburg.

Going to Helsinki with themselves.

We agree that it has been a marvelous adventure, made so much more enjoyable because we have met. We part like old friends, sure to reunite someday, perhaps soon. I venture off into the frenetic Helsinki nightlife for one last blast.

When I arrive at JFK on Saturday afternoon, Dina’s niece Katya is waiting for me at the next terminal. She has just arrived from Moscow, and will stay with us for several weeks, to soak up the experience of New York and America. So there is no time to miss the completed adventure; it is quickly on to the next one. This is our exchange program: one to Russia, one to the U.S., both of us bringing to each place a little piece of the soul of our homeland, and leaving behind in the new land a little piece of our heart.

* * *

So ends this blog and my trip, after 15 days, some 19,500 miles, an 80-degree swing in temperature, lots and lots of euros and countless shots of vodka. Thanks to Nikolay Saveliev of Poseidon Arctic Voyages for the opportunity to see the North Pole; to Alex Bout of Imperial River Cruises for his friendship and support; and to Dina for her love.