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An American Pilot In Europe

Flying over the verdant rolling hills of the Italian countryside, circling the ancient hilltop village of Urbino (birthplace of the painter Raphael), I looked at my wife, Corinna, and remembered just what it was that made me want to get that licence in the first place.

Every year, while thousands of licensed American pilots vacation abroad, few think of exploring the European skies. But in much of Europe, US pilots can easily rent a plane and make daytime VFR flights as Pilot In Command.

The linguistically challenged will be able to communicate: ATC, rental companies, instructors and even ATIS and AWAS all communicate in English.

A walletful of greenbacks doesn’t hurt. Anyone who’s ever filled up in a European gas station knows fuel prices over here are out of Mad Max: avgas runs about US$5.25 (you read that right, over five bucks a gallon). Hourly prices for plane rental can be almost double what they are in the States.

But what’s the price tag on an aerial trip up the Rhine, over Stonehenge, or around a castle? It’s the trip of a lifetime.

GETTING THE BASICS
The ICAO Chicago Convention says licensees from contracting states (including all European nations and the USA) are permitted to fly in other contracting states. The issue of national sovereignty is touchy in Europe, but if you have a valid FAA PPL and current medical certificate, you’re generally permitted to make daytime VFR flights.

In the UK and Holland, you can walk in to any flight school or Aero Club (as they’re called here) and after a checkout, rent a plane and zoom off into the sunset (though one zooms slightly differently over here. See Tips, below).

More rigidly legislated countries (like Germany, France and Spain), have red tape worthy of a Maastricht Treaty, but some advance work on your part can clear the way, at a minimum of fuss and expense, to recognition of your American PPL.

And good news: a certificate of recognition from any European Union member state is honored in all others.

So if you’re visiting, say, Germany, Spain and Italy, a certificate from one will be honored in any other. And best of all, the renter – usually a flight school or aero club that’s dealt with this situation before – will often assist with the paperwork as part of the rental fee. They will guide you through the process of getting a locally recognized “holiday license”.

You’ll usually need to send notarized copies of your PPL, medical, recent pages from your logbook, and your passport. Some countries, like Spain, also require a passport photo, so check whether you’ll need to send those.

Bring all of those items on your trip, too. And while we’re on what to bring, remember this: most planes here come equipped with just two headphones, so bring extra headphones if you’ll need them.

If you’re headed to the UK, Holland or Germany you can start checking into rentals and making reservations as little as a week before you arrive, but if you’re off to other countries start about six weeks in advance.

RENTALS
Renting a plane is almost as easy as it is in the USA, but there are differences. The best bet is to research using the search engines at flying websites, or by picking up flying magazines from the UK, such as Flyer (http://www.flyer.co.uk) or Pilot (http://www.hiway.co.uk). The back of these mags are packed with ads for flying schools, which almost always rent their airplanes.

Shop around! On a recent check of airports around Europe, I found major differences in rental prices, even in the same country. For example, I called Wycombe Air Centre (tel 011-44-149-444-3737), about 20 miles from Central London, and was quoted a price of 126 pounds (US$196) for a C-152 with an instructor, and 97 pounds (US$155) an hour for just the plane, wet, timing from brakes off to brakes on, including VAT (the notorious Value Added Tax). It was about US$10 extra for a C-172 with or without an instructor.

But a call to Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), about 10 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, got quotes of 89.50 pounds (US$143) with an instructor and 75 pounds (US$120) without for a C-152, and 102 pounds (US$163) with and 93 pounds (US$149) without for a C-172, on the same terms.

The Pesaro Aero Club in Fano, Italy (tel 011-3907-2180-3941), demanded the most I’ve ever laid out: US$210 for an hour and 40 minutes of flying, including 40 minutes with the instructor for the checkout, in a C-152.

The Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers, in Saint Maur, France, (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813) wanted 900 francs (US$138) with a (French language) instructor, and 744 francs (US$114) without one for a C-172.

But it can be cheaper (just a bit more than in the USA): Munich Flyers at Augsburg Airport, 45 minutes outside Munich (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761), gets DM240 (US$126) for a C-172 with an instructor, and DM 177 (US$95) without, including fuel, from wheels up to wheels down.

THE CHECKOUT
On that trip I took to Italy, I literally followed the low-flying planes I saw from the coastal road to the Pesaro Aero Club, on a grass strip just south of the city of Rimini. Showing my PPL and Medical at the flight school office, a teacher and I set off on a 40-minute checkout (really more of a brush-up on soft field landings and a lengthy description of the local airspace) and then I was off on my own, for a one-hour tour of the whole area.

A German instructor named Tom told me that he checks out people all the same way, even if it’s obvious they’ve been flying for years or are newly licensed.

“We do two traffic patterns,” he said, “to check their radio skills and landings, and then head for our practice area, where we do power-off and power-on stalls and steep turns. If they handle all that right, they’re on their own – and if not, they do an hour or two of brush-up lessons.”

I enjoy the rental checkride as much for the local air tour I get as I do for learning the different ways people teach flying in different countries (for example, in Germany, Tom wanted to see just the barest hint of an impending power-on stall, while my Italian instructor demanded – and demonstrated – something out of Snoopy and the Red Baron!).

The rental checkride is so important here because local regulations are dictated by many more idiosyncrasies and customs than in the USA. In the UK for example, noise abatement is so strict that procedures like, “On takeoff, make a right turn at 300 feet and head for the treeline before ascending,” and, “On downwind, approach from south of the village and then scoot round the village to the right and turn left again when you see the pub,” are more common than not.

And in Germany, where takeoffs and landings even on privately owned farms require clearance, strictly – even Germanly – regimented exits and entrances to the airport vicinity are required, using map points with names like Whiskey One and Echo One, as well as local conventions that aren’t even marked on the maps (see the box)!

The rental checkride’s good for learning all these, but even better is a visit to the tower. If you plan ahead, you can make the visit when you arrive – get off the commercial flight and head upstairs for a half-hour chat with the controllers. They’ll fill you in on restrictions, give you local flying tips, telephone numbers for weather forecasts, useful web addresses and tell you where you can buy charts of the area locally.

LANDING FEES
Most Americans are horrified to learn that practically every single airfield in Europe charges some sort of landing fee. In most airports it’s waived if you’re taking a local flight, but if you take a day trip to somewhere, be prepared to fork over anywhere from US$10 to US$25 in landing fees at the destination airport.

SOME TIPS
“The airspace is fairly restricted here compared to the USA,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation.

“For your own sake, study the map, and the airspace where you can and can’t go – which is much different around here.

“Experience obviously matters, and radio navaids can help, but England’s a small place, and you’ve got to watch your proximity to Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick,” she continued, referring to the fact that all those airports’ airspace is completely off-limits to VFR pilots in single-engine planes without a special VFR clearance.

Which you almost certainly won’t get!

Noise abatement rules dictate that you avoid town centers and other populated areas.

Radio work is also different, and Europeans seem to think the American practice of repeating the last three registration numbers as acknowledgment of an ATC directive just a bit too, well…American! You’re expected to repeat all the instructions given you by ATC, each and every time.

And finally, if you’ll be travelling outside larger cities, brush up on your soft-field landings and takeoffs: many airports have grass strips.

MORE INFORMATION
Note that anywhere in Europe your American license gives you the same rights at you have at home if you are flying in an N-registered (US-owned and registered) aircraft. Regardless of registration, you need no holiday license or any additional paperwork other than your valid PPL, valid medical and pilot’s logbook to fly as PIC from the UK or the Netherlands (Holland) – even if you land in another country.

For other countries you will often need a holiday license, recognizing your American license. The most straightforward agency to deal with in Europe is Germany’s Regierung Oberbayern Luftamt Suedbayern, Maximillianstrasse 39, 80538 Munich (tel 011-4989-2176-2523). Send them a letter, telling them the dates of your travel in Europe, a request for a Holiday License and photocopies of your PPL, Medical Certificate and the most recent page of your logbook, along with a copy of the data pages of your passport. The holiday license they will send you (Bescheinigung ueber die Allgemeine Anerkennung eines auslaenden Lueftfahrerscheins; allow four weeks for processing) is good for six months and costs about US$30. It is valid everywhere in Western Europe, allowing you to rent nationally registered planes.

In France, contact Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (tel 011-331-5809-4321, fax 011-331-5809-3636), License Office, 50 rue Henri Farman, 75015 Paris

Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), Saling Airfield, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3TH England

Munich Flyers Flugschule, GmbH, (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761) Hochederstrasse 2, 81545 Muenchen, Germany

Pesaro Aero Club (tel 011-3907-2180-3941) Via Dela Colonna 130, Fano, Italy 61032

Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813), 36250 Saint Maur, France

Warsaw’s Back. No, Seriously.

“How much,” I asked my travel agent in December 1990, “is a ticket to Warsaw””

She looked at me with an expectant grin and said, “I don’t know… . How much””

Back then, directly after the fall of the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe, traveling to Warsaw for pleasure was deemed as sensible as a current ski holiday in Sarajevo. But in the 2 1/2 years since, Warsaw and Poland have transformed to such an extent as to render them unrecognizable to returning visitors.

The bleak state-run shops half-filled with poor-quality foods have been replaced with sleek specialty shops offering inexpensive and high-quality products from Europe, Asia and America. The department stores, formerly unfilled with what P.J. O’Rourke once generously described as “Ken and Barbie clothes blown up to life size,” are now packed with the latest in European and, yes, Polish, fashions.

The buildings themselves are in the process of being cleaned and restored, bringing an instantly recognizable contrast to the dark, gray and dingy image that the name “Warsaw” conjured in post-war imaginations. And while Warsaw has not been known for its fine cuisine for decades, a proliferation of restaurants and cafes prompted even the normally reticent New York Times to run a recent article titled, “Dining Well In Warsaw … Yes, Warsaw.”

While it has improved to the point of being a viable and enjoyable tourist destination, it would be irresponsible to portray Warsaw as a beautiful city. True, the Stare Miasto, or Old City, was painstakingly and beautifully restored after World War II, but for the most part, Warsaw was reconstructed to the Soviet specifications that some would argue realized Hitler’s dream of forever eradicating the city from the face of the Earth.

Biting the Bullet
But walking through the Old Town, and witnessing the care and love that went into its precise reconstruction (teams working round the clock using original blueprints and even old paintings to match every detail as closely as possible), one can grasp a sense of the pride and love for a city that played such a crucial role in the Poles’ decision to “bite the bullet,” taking reforms in one fell swoop as opposed to the gradual measures employed in the rest of Eastern Europe and now in Russia.

It was as if no hardship could stop the Poles from reclaiming their city, even if half of it was not as they would have envisioned it. Once this is understood and felt, the visitor can see Warsaw as the sum of its parts and truly appreciate what the city has to offer.

Transformation
Today’s Warsaw is an exciting, vibrant city offering both cultural attractions and the draw created by its very transformation. And while some aspects of life here can still leave a Western visitor shaking his or her head and saying, “How can that BE”” these occasions are becoming rarer every day.

Service levels in hotels, restaurants, museums and shops are now essentially equal to those in their Western counterparts, and the currency is stable to the point that one will not be inconvenienced at all by the law requiring all transactions in Poland to be carried out in the zloty (while the country’s currency reform, which will slash four zeroes from the currency to put it on a parallel with the current deutsche mark’s value, has not yet occurred, the exchange rate hovers at a predictable level in the area of 16,000 zloty to the U.S. dollar).

Getting There
Warsaw’s brand-new and exceptionally sensible airport is served by almost every major carrier in the world, as well as by LOT, the state-run airline. LOT has now completely refurbished its transatlantic (and a good deal of its European) fleet with Boeing 767s, and in-flight service is quite good. Visas are no longer required for Americans (or almost anyone else, for that matter), so customs is no longer a lengthy procedure.

When getting from the airport to the city center, there are three options: Limousines can be booked inside the airport terminal at LOT Air Tours for about $50 U.S., taxis wait outside the terminal building in a line (average price from the airport to the city center is $15 U.S.) and for the more frugal traveler, a very reliable city bus makes the trip to the center every 15 minutes.

You must buy a ticket (billet) for each passenger and for extra baggage as well. They are available from the newsstand in the arrival terminal, and currently cost about 50 cents U.S. Walk outside the terminal, one lane past the taxi stand, and wait for bus 175. You must validate your ticket by placing it in the small, silver ticket punchers on the walls of the bus (Punch both ends). It’s basically the honor system, but plainclothes police officers regularly ask to see your ticket, and can impose an on-the-spot fine should you not have one.

Within the city an excellent public transportation network of trains and taxis makes car rental almost unnecessary. Bus maps are available at hotels and service is frequent and inexpensive. Taxis can be tricky, as most drivers don’t speak English and have been known to take advantage of a foreigner. Each of the luxury hotels has taxis with English-speaking drivers, but you will pay about double for the service.

If you know some Polish, or if you have your destination written down, getting a city taxi is very simple. All taxis are metered, but because of the collapse of the zloty, the number on the meter must be multiplied (currently by 600 times). Look for a sign on the dashboard indicating the multiplier to calculate your fare.

Where to Stay
Unlike many of its Eastern European counterparts, Warsaw is packed with hotel space, ranging from the downright cheap ($21 for a three-person room without bath in Hotel Harenda) to the spartan yet comfortable midrange ($50 for a double with bath and breakfast at the Hotels Warszawa, Metropol and Saski), to the frighteningly expensive (more than $1,000 for the Marriott’s Presidential Suite). The city’s luxury hotels, the Marriott, the Holiday Inn, the Victoria and the new Bristol, Sobieski and Mercure, offer Western service and appointments as well as fine restaurants, and all are equipped with satellite television and telephone. The Marriott and Victoria have been the hotels of choice for visiting businessmen for the last several years, but the Sobieski offers slightly lower prices and very comfortable rooms (double including breakfast, $226 per night). Reservations for these hotels can be made with the hotels directly or at U.S. offices of Orbis, the Polish State Travel Service.

Tourist Information
There are now two reliable English-language sources of tourist information and local news: The Warsaw Voice, a well-written weekly newspaper, and Warsaw What, Where When, a monthly tourist information magazine packed with practical information. Both are available in all hotels, and some restaurants catering to international clientele.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, and many organizations are offering tours of the Warsaw Ghetto; check with Orbis, LOT Air Tours or hotel concierges to find out exactly what’s on during your stay.

Warsaw’s main tourist attraction is the Stare Miasto, easily reachable by taking bus 175 to the end of Krakowski Przedmiescie. Maps of the city and the Stare Miasto are available in every hotel, and a full-color version is published every month in the centerfold of Warsaw What, Where When. The center of the Stare Miasto, the Old Town Market (Rynek Starego Miasta), is breathtakingly beautiful, and during the summer months the restaurants that line the streets spread out huge sidewalk cafes offering Polish specialties, good coffee and drinks.

Within very short walking distance of the Old Town Market square are castles, cathedrals, a synagogue and the Swientajanska Cathedral, which was spectacularly restored and houses catacombs that contain the remains of Polish royalty.

Walking from the Stare Miasto toward the city will take you down Warsaw’s most beautiful street, ulitsa Nowy Swiat, or “New World” street. This is a grand, gently curving boulevard that also has been restored to its pre-war splendor and is lined with fashionable shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.

Shopping
Right in the center of the city, near the widely despised Palace of Science and Culture (a “gift” from the people of the Soviet Union), is a huge market packed with kiosks, selling everything imaginable from clothes to appliances to bootleg cassette tapes of Western music. Off to the side of this market is an amusement park with kiddie rides and two giant bunkers that look like tennis courts, which house a Western supermarket and more kiosks.

If you’d like to buy some Russian souvenirs, be they military paraphernalia or Soviet-made appliances, head out to Ten Year Stadium in Praga (on the other side of the Vistula river from the center of the city), where tens of thousands of Russians gather in a makeshift market to peddle everything they own. It’s an amazing sight, and a visit will offer an insight as to just how desperate the situation in Russia currently is. In all major shopping markets guard your wallet: Pickpockets are everywhere.

The city’s major department stores are located right near the center on Ulitsa Marszalkowska, and all are well stocked with Western and high-quality Polish goods.

Warsaw as a Travel Center
Warsaw’s location at the border of Eastern and Western Europe makes it an ideal travel base for jaunts into Europe, Eastern Europe or Russia. Air fares from Warsaw to the rest of Europe are very reasonable, and there is daily service to all European capitals and many European and Eastern European cities. In addition, Warsaw offers a major rail link to Eastern and Western Europe, with daily train service to many capitals. The daily overnight rail service to the Czech Republic, Vienna and Budapest is charming and enjoyable, on clean, well-appointed trains. It is worth getting a first-class compartment, which comes complete with a sink and closet. Currently, an overnight ticket from Warsaw to Prague costs about $50 U.S.

Air tickets can be purchased at one of the city’s new privately owned travel agents, through LOT at the Marriott Hotel, or though offices of Orbis. Train tickets can be purchased at POL-RES on Jerzolimskie Avenue 44 (near the Marriott) or at the Warsaw Central Train Station, directly across the street from both the Marriott and Holiday Inn hotels. If you go to the train station, walk upstairs opposite the main ticket counters (you’ll see the crowds) and look for a sign saying Medzonarodowicz Billety. If you get hungry while buying your ticket, there’s a Chinese restaurant right next to the ticket counter.

Warsaw has indeed come a long way in the last three years; it is, despite its economic and political problems, a genuine success story in the transformation from a Communist to a free-market society. And the change in the people themselves is readily apparent to anyone who visited two years ago.

Shops and restaurants now welcome potential customers with a cheery “dzien dobry,” or “good day,” as opposed to the stone-faced looks one used to receive. When shopkeepers don’t have a particular item, they no longer say “nie ma,” or “there isn’t any,” before looking away and dismissing a customer, but now say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t have it now.”

And Warsaw residents, always thoroughly proud of their city and their culture, seem visibly happier, now that they are once again able to show their city in all its wonderful, albeit somewhat scoffed, glory.

Living Aboard A GA Airplane

I’m coming up on PREDA Intersection and 7,000 feet on my departure from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The Tiger snaps left on Bahamas Route 70V toward Freeport, and I’m concentrating so intently that I’m startled by a squeal of delight from the backseat – Corinna thinks she just saw a dolphin.
I look down and see that we’re completely over the azure waters of the Caribbean. Within 10 minutes we’re out of sight of the Florida coast, and we can’t yet make out Bimini or Grand Bahama Island.

For three months, this kind of adventure happened to me every day.

Last year I spent about 300 hours in honest-to-goodness cross-country journeys in Cessna Skyhawks, Mooneys, Piper Cherokees, and a new Tiger, taking photos and gathering information for the Flyguides Web site. The trips took me to places I’ve always dreamed of visiting: the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Deep South. After years of traditional travel writing, I had found the perfect gig: writing about the great places I was flying to. Some of that information also finds its way into the Postcards Online that members receive in AOPA ePilot. There we deliver information about a destination in your region one Friday a month (sign up for your free copy online at www.aopa.org).

The downside about such a job? The commute was no picnic: Say what you will about the 8:17 a.m. from Poughkeepsie – I was catching the 3:55 a.m. from Munich, Germany. Every other Monday. I began to suspect my wife – who stayed at home in Germany – did not love this setup as much as United Airlines did.

So we decided to move back to the United States. We threw all our belongings into a shipping container and headed west. Rather than settle down immediately, we decided that I would take the family with me on an extended research trip, which would double as a grand tour of America, my German-born wife and son’s new homeland.

Astonishingly, some have used the word vacation when referring to a three-month family trip in a general aviation airplane, although I must admit that I was, in fact, hoping for just that. Spending uninterrupted time with Corinna and 4-year-old Spijk (rhymes with Mike) was a dream come true.

But bills needed to be paid, and for me the trip was about gathering information on great fly-in destinations. In the first year, Flyguides had laid the foundations of a pilot travel Web site by publishing detailed guides to the largest metro-area GA airports in the country; now our small squadron of freelancers and I are flying around America to get information on the mid-size and smaller places we need to include to give our Web site a truly nationwide appeal.

With five and a half thousand airports to cover, we couldn’t afford to stay on the ground long.

My mission: profiling the East, South, and Midwest United States, as well as the Bahamas. We tried to schedule stops at beaches and interesting activities for the family, but adhering to the tight production schedule didn’t leave much time for lounging.

Things did not begin well. A couple of days into the trip, our rented Skyhawk blew out its radios in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) as we approached Lexington, Kentucky. It was interesting doing the “turn-left-two-two-zero-if-you-can-hear-this-ident” thing with the excellent approach and tower controllers there, but it was not something I’d wish to repeat any time soon.

Herb, at Hortman Aviation Services at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, was great: He told us to “fix the radios, send me the bill, then get on back here,” where he would swap us out for a 2004 Tiger. That Tiger turned out to have 80 hours on the Hobbs and that new-car smell.

One of the things we had worried about while planning the trip was Spijk’s ability to roll with the punches of GA: weather-related itinerary changes, getting stuck anyplace that is not Disney World…what amazed us throughout was his nonchalance when it came to getting into the airplane. After he called out, “One, two, three…takeoff!” to begin each flight, we could almost set the altimeter to Spijk’s nodding off as we hit 600 feet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise we faced as a family essentially living in an airplane was how quickly those routines evolved. Unless you’re driving a bizjet, GA travel is far more intimate than travel by car – if only because you’re unable to toss the luggage in the trunk. For the first few days, my right-seat passenger was a 55-pound Samsonite.

But imagine flying by GA every day, and every day someplace new: Leave the hotel, return the rental car, check the weather, load up and preflight the airplane, file the flight plan, take off, land, unload the airplane, get a rental car, head to the hotel…. The complex preparation, which I relished in the days of more sporadic flying opportunities, quickly became mundane.

This repetition was also an immersion course in real-world flying: Being in the system every single day is normally the domain of airline and cargo pilots. Being a part of this airborne community was a thrill, and I noticed that after a while, controllers treated me like a pro. As a newly minted private pilot, I’d been tentative on the mic. Later I overcompensated to the point of drawling like a graybeard. After weeks in the system I was relaxed but concise, and I knew when to be cute – and when to shut up.

Throughout our journey, we benefited from that most holy of travel-writing perks, local knowledge: We learned about the bourbon business and horse training in Lexington, and why the waters of the Bahamas are so gin-clear. We learned about the Bayou and the oil industry in Louisiana, Kansas’ high-tech corridor, and the Amish and Mennonite communities of Iowa. And that the best burgers any of us have ever had were at the airport restaurant in San Marcos, Texas.

Early on, we recognized my propensity to make decisions based on comfort in addition to safety, something new to me after a couple hundred hours of solo cross-countries. There were several days during which the weather was soft IMC: no icing or convective stuff, just garden-variety soup. Operationally this spells a smooth ride. But I had to scrub the flight because “Daddy, are we there yet?” takes on new meaning inside a 200-mile-long cloud.

Time, in aviation, apparently differs from that in the real world. A major point of contention for the first week or so was the allegation that I was underestimating journey time. “How long is it to X?” I’d be asked. I’d reply, “Oh, just under an hour.” Except, where we pilots count in Hobbs time, our friends and family tend to judge time using something they call a watch. Note to self: Families judge journey time door to door, not chock to chock.

I spent the entire three months feeling I was late for an appointment. Never before have I felt like such a rat as I did when, in a hurry and down to minimum fuel requirements, I landed at Morgantown, West Virginia, in the midst of a Young Eagles Day. As I was snappily marshaled in by Civil Air Patrol volunteers, I gazed at the sea of shining, innocent faces of children eager for their dreams to take wing. Then I slammed the Skyhawk door, said, “Sorry, guys, I’m just here for a fill-up,” and stomped off to the terminal.

Flight planning now required consideration of family business as much as the business end of cold fronts. We’d planned a straight shot from Northeast Philadelphia to Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as the inaugural flight in the Tiger, so early in the morning we loaded kit, caboodle, and Spijk into the airplane and set off. As soon as we were in the air, though, Spijk had the mother of all temper tantrums. We set down at Philadelphia International Airport nine minutes after departure – and learned our first valuable lesson: The new Selby family rule is no one gets into the airplane without breakfast.

While we were getting used to the Tiger, Corinna and Spijk got an intensive course in aviation weather. As any Florida pilot knows, convective sigmets in the Sunshine State are much like the temporary flight restrictions around our commander in chief – they’re in place whenever you’re overhead. As we approached the Florida border, we began a three-hour cell dodge, which had us diverting 50 miles inland, then back to the coast, then inland again before making our way to St. Augustine.

We saw places we’d never have seen if it weren’t for the airplane: I’d never even contemplated Port Arthur, Texas, but when I arrived there for a break and fueling on our flight from New Orleans to San Antonio, the disarmingly friendly lineman at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport handed me the keys to his new truck (in lieu of a formal courtesy car). “Just make sure the gas is where it is when you got it,” he told us. And then he gave me directions to a nearby restaurant. Took me three tries to decipher his twang, but I heard something like “Sahtn.”

Forty minutes later, Corinna, Spijk, and I practically rolled away from the table at Sartin’s Seafood, where we had dazzlingly fresh, crispy, and enormous portions of fried fish for Corinna, barbecued crabs for Spijk, and broiled flounder for me. Awesome.

That kind of hospitality doesn’t, as far as I can tell, exist outside aviation circles. But within those, it’s commonplace.

The Bahamas provides pilots the best of all worlds, and the government is keenly supportive of aviation tour-ism, which is nice in itself. But the flying isn’t great there just because of the jaw-dropping clear water and dazzlingly white beaches; it’s practical, too. I could and did fly from Freeport to Walker’s Cay for a delicious lunch, then return for an afternoon on the beach at Port Lucaya; this is something the earthbound could never accomplish. There’s not enough space in this magazine to list opportunities like that in the Bahamas.

And having an airplane there was an interesting opportunity for me to show others the wonders of flight; the look on the face of the Rev. Hicks, as I let him take the controls on a flight from New Bight Airport to Hawk’s Nest on Cat Island, was of childlike wonder and bliss.

At the end of our odyssey, Corinna, Spijk, and I were, truth be told, ready to land for a while. Covering 5,099 miles, landing at 77 airfields, and moving our bags every 24 to 48 hours for three months took their toll. I knew it was time to stop when I found myself saying, “Roger,” at the Radisson check-in desk. I have to admit, during the next two months, I didn’t even sit down in an airplane.

Looking back, the journey was a lot like high school, or a stint in the Army: It was intense, I learned a lot, and we made some wonderful friends. But I wouldn’t want to do it again. In fact, it makes me wonder just how great my job really is. Maybe GA is best in smaller doses.

I think of my friend Carl, who starts planning his weekend trips on Monday and spends the week tweaking the route, researching his destination, and checking the weather. These ingredients are all part of the allure, and anticipation, of a GA flight to somewhere new.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more the whole concept of carpe nundinae – arguably Latin for seize the weekend – appeals. So next time you find yourself contemplating an hour of circles around the airport and holes in the sky, remember that no matter where you live, you’re under an hour flight from someplace great.

…And Scattered Jehova’s Witnesses

A late-night Australian nationwide television program has broadcast a “weather report” showing the five-day movements of door-knocking missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS], entitled “The Mormon Report.”

LDS missionaries, in Australia since 1850, are a common sight here, riding bicycles and travelling door-to-door to hand out literature and discuss their religion.

The satirical report on NBC sister station Channel 7 placed cut-out symbols representing Mormons, including black-suited figures riding bicycles and rowing boats as well as knocking on doors, over a weather-style map of the country. “High” and “Low Pressure” area symbols were also used, with “predictions” such as “Mormon Norman is predicted to reach the north coast today, causing extreme depression; the state Early Mormon Warning Center expects Norman to cross the coast early this morning and residents are advised to lock their doors and pretend that no one is home.”

A portion late in the report offered a five day extended forecast of Mormon activities, which included statements such as “Scattered one to two meter Mormons” and “[good weather], with a chance of Jehova’s Witnesses towards evening”. It also spoke of “Amway ladies”, who are travelling salespeople.

A spokesman for the LDS, Alan Wakeley, said that in Australia, the LDS can’t afford to take itself so seriously that it would get upset over a good-natured spoof on a well-known satirical program. “We don’t mind the organization being sent up every now and then,” he said. “It would be “over the top” to react in any other way.”

While the LDS admits that its missionaries are a unique phenomenon, Mormons are generally well-tolerated and there are very few complaints about their methods here.

Mr. Wakeley went on to say that had the incident been a serious comparison of the group’s strategy to a sales organization, the LDS would have taken offense, but that satire is satire.

Both Mr. Wakeley and a spokesman for Channel 7 have stated that there have been no complaints received as yet.

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”

Oh.

10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.

Amazing.

Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.

Welcome Home In Germany!

angry-waitressIt’s the second week of our family holiday, and we have driven north from Italy, through Austria and into southern Bavaria. We decide that a lovely place to spend a night would be at the Panorama Campsite (“Directly on the Lake!”) at Prien am Chiemsee*, one of those idyllic little Bavarian towns that looks as if it has been created for GermanLand, a new theme park in Abu Dhabi.

We go into the restaurant (“Fresh fish! Straight from the Lake!”) and consult the menu. Now, I should mention that I lived in Germany for about seven years; my wife and son were both born in Munich. My German is passable, and my wife’s is native.

On the menu it says, “Pan-fried lake trout,” and describes in typically flowery German how they take a lake trout and filet it and fry it in a frying pan with butter and spices.

Another offering is “Grilled lake trout” which describes in equally flowery language how the lake trout is taken and fileted and placed on a grill over a flame. In their online menu, they say,

“To feel the Bavarian atmosphere, we offer regularly knuckle of pork and other Bavarian specialities from the charcoal grill on our cozy terrace (their translation, not mine).

One thing I hate: pan-fried fish. One thing I love: grilled fish.

My wife knows this. Whie I am back at the campervan futzing with my contact lenses or something, my wife has a conversation with the waitress, who explains the difference between the two fish dishes – they are as described in the menu.

 

I order the grilled fish. It arrives. It’s been fried in a pan, and swimming in butter.

We call over the waitress. “In the menu this says grilled fish,” we say, “This is pan fried.”

The waitress, her face a mask of anger, her outrage at our interrupting her evening visible through her pancake makeup, says “I’ll be back.”

Two minutes pass. She comes over to the table and now, in English, says, “The chef will be out to explain it to you.”

“Explain it to me?” I say in English. “I don’t need an explanation, I need you to take this fish back and bring me some grilled fish,” but she’s off like a shot to…

…To sit down with her friends two tables away and smoke a cigarette, and drink a beer, and bitch about the tourists.

The chef comes out – he’s actually a pretty nice young man. “A pleasant good evening to you sir and madam,” he says in formal but not smart-assed German. “I understand there is a problem?”

“Yes,” my wife says, “The menu says that this is grilled fish, but it is pan- fried, and my husband doesn’t like fried fish, doesn’t like fish cooked in butter.”

“Ahh,” says the chef, who now understands he is speaking with someone quite foolish indeed. “You see, we use the butter to esure the fish stays moist and tender. It is quite normal in Germany.”

My wife points out that she is (a) from Germany herself and (b) sufficiently literate to read the menu, on which it states that the fish is grilled, as opposed specifically to the previous entry which is fried in butter. The chef says, “I see. Well, we will make him a fish that is not fried in butter.”

Wonderful. Five minutes later the waitress comes out.

“Next time,” she says in English, “You should tell us if you have a special order,” she lectures, then turns on her heel to walk away from our reactions.

My wife and I both ejaculated simultaneously:

“Next time you should read your own menu, lady, don’t tell me how to order,” and “Next time? You silly arrogant woman, there will never be a next time.”

The next morning, as we were ready to pay at the camping ground and leave, my wife walks in and says to the chain-smoking, obviously alcoholic cashier, “Good morning, I’d like to pay, please.”

He does not look up from his desk, but rather says, “Yeah, I have a different problem now.”

 

Gemütlichkeit [geh-mOOT-likh-kite] (1) An environment or state of mind that conduces a cheerful mood and peace of mind, with connotation of a notion of belonging and social acceptance, of being cozy and unhurried.

 

________

Why is it that on traffic signs for ‘Prien am Chiemsee’ they abbreviate the ‘am’? Not the ‘Chiemsee’. Not the ‘Prien’. The ‘Am’ Yes, ‘Prien a. Chiemsee’. It’s an abbreviation that saves literally no space on the sign.

London…On The Cheap

Americans staggered by British price especially after the dollar’s summer plunge, may find it hard to associate the word “cheap” with a vacation here.

“It’s more expensive than Norway here,” said shell-shocked Chicago resident Tom Day. “Gas is almost $7 a gallon!”

Americans find they’re charged extra for things that are free in the States – such as packs of ketchup and vinegar, or toast, rather than bread, with breakfast – adding insult to injury.

But London on the cheap is possible, and you don’t have to be a college student to find it. In fact, it’s easy. The more flexible your time, the cheaper it gets.

A good starting place is at the airport: From Heathrow, the Paddington Express costs £21 and takes 15 minutes to get you to Paddington Station. Just follow the signs that say “Underground.” (From Gatwick, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station.)

Fall is a great time to go for several reason not the least of which is increased availability of airline seats. Every summer, millions of backpackers and other visitors swoop into the city on the Thame where the tourist industry is lying in wait like a bear trap. Waiting until fall lets you beat the crowds and gives you a better chance of finding cheap lodging.

Accommodations
Time Out: London (Penguin), Western Europe: On A Shoestring (Lonely Planet) and Let’s Go: Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press) are three of the most valuable reference guides for cheap accommodation. Consult them before leaving the States – the cheaper the place, the more imperative reservations are. Most hotels will take a U.S. traveler’s check or a credit card as deposit for a room.

If you show up without a guidebook (or a clue), take the tube to Earl’s Court station – in the center of “Little Australia” or “Aussieland” – and you’ll come across a slew of rock-bottom crash pads (if breakfast is included in one of them it’s likely to feature Vegemite, a black, noxious goo made from yeast extract and eaten for breakfast by many Australians).

Follow anyone with an Aussie accent to the nearest backpacker, where, if you’re of the it’s-just-a-place-to-crash school of hotel selection, you can get away with spending as little as $25 per person per night.

You may also be accosted by any number of cheap-digs hawker who may or may not have a real room. Be careful, and don’t pay anyone anything until you’ve seen the room and gotten the key.

Many of the cheaper standard hotels in and around the center can be had for around $60 double. In the inexpensive hotel bathrooms are usually not inside your room but shared by those staying on your floor. That said, they’re usually spotlessly clean, and almost every room contains a wash basin and towels.

England’s famous bed-and-breakfast which are usually located outside the center, are far cheaper than a hotel, but be careful when looking at prices. They usually list a price per person, not per room. “En suite” means the bathroom is in the room and usually costs $15 to $30 extra.

Changing Money
A great option is cash from ATM which allow you to get cash from your Visa or MasterCard, as well as from bank accounts on the Plus or Cirrus network. Exchange rates on these transactions are generally much better than those for cash, and Lloyd’s and Midland bank machines tend to be connected to many U.S. networks.

In the center, money changers can be found everywhere, and rates are very competitive. Shop carefully; commissions can run high (some charge minimums of £3), while the more disreputable operations will lure customers in by posting rates at which they sell, as opposed to buy, other currencies. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Traveler’s checks will often get a slightly better rate than bank notes. If you’re changing more than $1,000 of either at one time you can – and absolutely should – negotiate for a better rate. Rates in the airports and train stations are generally worse than those in town, so change just enough to get away from there.

Getting Around
Immediately invest £13 ($20) in a one-week transit Travelcard, which covers buses and the tube (but not night buses) in transport zones 1 and 2, which include almost everywhere you’ll head in the city (except Heathrow airport, which is an extra one-time fare). One-day Travelcards cost £2.70 ($4.25), and either is a great saving, as a ride on the tube starts at about £1.

Taxis have a fantastically complex fare system, which can be summarized as a minimum of £1.20 ($1.90), with a fare that zooms up at a jolly clip depending on time of day, traffic, distance and other seemingly arbitrary factors. But you’ll get what you pay for: London cabbies are perhaps the best in the world, having to prove they know the fastest way to get to every single street in the city before they get their license. They’ll also talk your ear off if you let them. Tipping is expected; 10 percent is plenty.

Getting out of London is cheapest on buses (coaches). A round-trip ticket to Leed for example, can cost £15 ($24) on a National Express coach (telephone 071-730 0202) and up to £50 ($79) by train. Another option is a sort of formalized hitchhiking service provided by the National Lift Center, which brings together drivers and passengers. Call the center at 091-222 0090 with details of where you want to go; the staff will try to match you with a driver, with whom you’ll share or pay the cost of gas.

Pub Clubs & Restaurants
Time Out magazine is the frankly-written weekly London happenings bible, which offers the most current and complete listings of pubs and clubs for all taste in addition to shopping bargains of the week; film, dance, music and comedy club reviews and listings; and a helpful “Student London” section. It’s available at newsstands everywhere for £1.50 ($2.40).

Choosing a pub is a tricky matter in London’s center, but a basic rule is the farther from a tube station it i the cheaper the prices and the more interesting the clientele. While Londoners rant incessantly about the price of a pint, the going rate this summer is about £1.60 or around $2.50.

London offers a fantastic array of inexpensive food option and some of the best Indian food on the planet (averaging $5.50 an entree). Other cheap eats include the ubiquitous fish and chips (about $4.75); Japanese (about $8); pizza by the slice (about $1.60); Thai (from about $11 per person); and vegetarian (including the phenomenal stuff at Food For Thought, where light lunches for two can be under $8, including soft drinks). Avoid anyplace calling itself a steak house.

Another cheapie is the “jacket potato,” or potato skin on sale at stands and in restaurants. Fast, filling and deliciou these stuffed things start at about $2.35. (See the box for more on food.)

Theater Tickets
These day good and cheap West End theater tickets are awfully hard to come by, and if the price is under $15, you’re probably sitting behind a column.

Same-day tickets can be had, however; your best bet is the Leicester Square Half-Price Ticket Booth in the clock tower building in Leicester Square. It sells half-price tickets to many shows on the day of the performance; service charge is £1.50 (about $2.35) per ticket.

Museums
Admission is free to the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery. A great deal on 13 others (including the Barbican Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum and Victoria and Albert) is the £10 ($15.80) White Card, available at Tourist Information Centers and the museums themselves. The more you see, the more you save – average admission to each museum runs £3.70 ($5.80).

Doing London cheaply is an art, and the longer you stay, the better you’ll get at it. Time Out and the above guidebooks are but a start. The real fun is finding that fantastic Thai place, discovering “pie and mash,” and feasting on London’s budget cornucopia.

DINING ON THE CHEAP

Here are 10 cheap dining ideas for travelers to London:

Food For Thought

Vegetarian staples with good stew curries and excellent broccoli quiche in a tiny space just off Covent Garden. Very popular. Too bad about all the styrofoam these “environmentalists” use for take-out orders. Average $4 for main course $2.50 for salads. No alcohol. 31 Neal St., phone 071-836 9072.

Wagamama

Japanese health food in a very stylish and funky noodle house-cum-trend spot. Average meals run $8 per person. Wine ranges from $10 to $15 a bottle, sake $3 for a large tokkuri. Streatham Street at Bloomsbury Street, phone 071-323 9223.

The Stockpot

Several branches haven’t diminished the great value of the Italian and Italian-influenced food served here. You can have a full meal (without wine) for $8, and house wine is under $10 a bottle. 6 Basil St. (071-589 8627); 18 Old Compton Court (071-287 1066); 273 King’s Road (071-823 3175); and 50 James St. (071-486 1086).

William Price

This small cafe in Neal’s Yard serves up basic sandwiches and bagels and English breakfasts all day. It also features some very nice cake scones and pastries. Average breakfast is under $5, sandwiches up to $3.75; no alcohol. 7 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-379 1025.

Neal’s Yard Bakery Coop

Right next to William Price, this spot sells amazing breads and cakes and serves pizzas and snacks to eat in the lovely upstairs dining room. The costliest item is just over $3. 6 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-826 5199.

Mandeer

If you take “all you can eat” to be a personal challenge, head to this vegetarian Indian restaurant for a set lunch buffet for a mere $5.50. House wines at $12; 10 percent service charge. 21 Hanway St., phone 071-323 0660.

Diwana Bhel Poori House

Similar to Mandeer, only slightly more expensive. No alcohol, but you can BYOB. 121 Drummond St., phone 071-387 5556.

Upper Street Fish Shop

Good fish and chips in a bistro setting; traditional (deep-fried) cod and chips for about $10; fish can also be grilled or poached. BYOB. 324 Upper St., Islington, phone 071-359 1401.

Fish & Chips Stands

Any number of places sell generally superb examples of this British standby. Dousing the chips in vinegar will make you seem like a local. Average price throughout the city is $4.75.

Pie & Mash Places

These are also scattered about the city, with classic meals of mushed-up English things inside pastry. They’re definitely a London tradition, and can range from “what’s that”” to heavenly. $3 to $4.50.

IF YOU GO …

For budget accommodations in London, try these organizations and services:

The Youth Hostel Association produces a booklet listing all hostels in England and Wales. Write to the group at Trevelyan House, 8 St. Stephen’s Hill, St. Albans ALO 2DY England.

The London Tourist Board and Convention Center publishes “London Accommodation for Budget Traveller” available by writing to the British Tourist Authority, Thames Tower, Black’s Road, London W6 9EL. It contains listings arranged by area for flat-sit B&Bs and small hotels.

London Accommodation Guides publishes a similar listing arranged by price. Information: 071-865 9000.

The British Hotel Reservation Center at Heathrow books B&Bs and hostels. call 081-564 8801 (Terminals 1,2 and 3); 081-564 8211 (Terminal 4).

 

London Homestead Services offers B&Bs just outside the center but convenient to public transportation, from 14 and up per person a night, with a minimum stay of three nights. 081-949 4455.

48 Hours In Helsinki

Helsinki swings in summer, when its northern locale gives it 23 hours of daylight, and Helsinkians stay out for most of it. And celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s stone fortress on an idyllic little green island at the city’s south, are in full heat this summer. Both Suomenlinna and the city’s breathtakingly charming portside market are chock-a-block with festivals, open air concerts, tall ship celebrations and wonderful food stalls.

Get Your Bearings
Helsinki, with its delightful mix of Scandinavian, European and Russian architecture, was established in 1550 as a market to compete with Tallinn, across the Baltic Sea. Held by many to be the real gateway between east an d west, Helsinki offers the best of European, Baltic and Russian cultures.

Because the compact centre grew up round the port and market area, Helsinki’s easily walkable; 15-minutes walk from the central train station brings you to the port, where ferries and charter boats await to bring you round the city’s more than 300 small islands. From the port, too, are ferries and cruise ships leaving for Tallinn, St Petersburg and destinations in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Finnair coaches connect the central train station with the airport every half hour; the journey takes 35 minutes.

Check In
One lovely surprise is that all hotels – and even most hostels – in Helsinki have free saunas for guests’ use. The city’s Hotel Booking Centre is a terrific source of help, especially when large events book out the city’s somewhat limited hotel space. They’re in the west wing of the central railway station (tel from the UK 00-358-9-171-133, fax 00-358-9-175-524), and book rooms for Helsinki and all of Finland. They’ll also fax you a price list, or do on the spot bookings.

The Arctia Grand Marina Hotel is one of the city’s finest secrets and a personal favourite. A four star hotel in a renovated former port warehouse, rooms are large, staff attentive and friendly, and weekend deals can get you snuggled up with a view of the harbour for under GBP55 (tel 16-661), Katajamokanlaituri 7.

Another pleasant place near the water is the Seaside Hotel (tel 69-360), Ruoholadenranta 3, with weekend double room rates of GBP66 for singles and doubles.

The best tip for a cheap room – if you are prepared to forego an en-suite bath – is the friendly and spotless Eurohostel, right near the port, which has private single and double rooms for GBP22/28.

Night on the Tiles
Helsinki starts hopping early, and people head for discos around 11 pm. Happy Days, Pohjoisesplanadi 2, is a yuppie hangout with mainstream hits and a fun crowd, and Nylon, Kaivokatu 10, is a small but jamming dance and hip hop club with a younger and much wilder crowd. Opposite Nylon, 10th Floor, Kaivokatu 3, is an upmarket flashy late night club. Too wild? Throw on some nicer duds and take a friend over to Vanha Maestro, Fredrikinkatu 51, for some wildly popular Finnish Tango (you read that right).

Take a Ride
The TourExpert desk at the excellent Helsinki City Tourist Office (tel 169-3757), Pohjoiseplanadi 19 near the port, sells tickets to sightseeing tours throughout the city and surrounding islands. The cheapest way to get your bearings is by hopping on a tr am No 3T, which makes a 45-minute figure-8 orientation loop through the heart of the city. Too pedestrian? In the evening hop on the Bar Tram which offers much the same plus beer!

The greenest way to take a tour is through TandemTaxi (tel 040-540-0400), which guide you round on tandem bicycles. And if money’s no object, charter one of the tall wooden sailing ships that gather in port for a lunch or dinner cruise (from GBP200).

Take a Hike
The most popular place to get away from it all is Suomenlinna, the fortress-village on an island off the centre where celebrations and special events continue throughout the summer. Walk through the villages streets or in the outskirts for nice walks along the shore. Helsinki residents – especially lovers – hold Kairopuisto, another island at the city’s southeast corner, dear to their hearts. It’s great for summer outdoor concerts and picnics in the park.

Lunch on the Run
Tops for a delicious and quick lunch are the food stalls around the city’s excellent covered market. Inside are dozens of options from smoked raindeer meat to excellent vegetarian; from authentic Italian and superb Vietnamese to the more pedestrian doner kebab. Outside, along the waterfront, do sample some of the heavenly smoked fish sold from small boats.

Cultural Afternoon
Invest in a Helsinki Card (GBP13), for unlimited use of city public transport (including the Suomenlinna ferry), tours and admission to most of the city’s museums.

Kiasma, the city’s new contemporary arts museum, opened with a bang in May; along with the prerequisite multimedia installations, don’t miss Christian Steel’s immensely popular scent installation, Babylon: a series of intricately-shaped porcelain pots from the Royal Danish Porcelain factory filled with oils scented with everything from birch tar to galbanum (through December). The Cygnaeus Gallery, in a lovely villa, has a great collection of 19th and 20th century Finnish paintings and sculpture. There are fine industrial and fine arts exhibits at the Helsinki City Art Museum, and transport buffs love it here: there’s a good aviation museum at the airport and a fascinating tram museum in the centre.

Window Shopping
The best shopping is right in the centre, around the enormous Stockmann’s department store. While it’s heavily touristed, the market near the port is not a tourist trap, and there’s a fine selection of Finnish handicrafts on offer, with good value for the money.

An Aperitif
Throughout the city you’ll see sidewalk cafes overflowing into the streets at the first sight of good weather: Helsinkians love drinking outdoors. Do try Koskankorva, a vodka-like firewater taken in shots or mixed with fruit juice.

Dinner
One place not in most guidebooks is Helsinki’s outstanding Garlic Restaurant (tel 651-939), Fredrikinkatu 22, a must stop for any garlic fan, with fine service, sensational homemade bread and herb butter and a very creative menu. Try the stupendous fish-kebob: pike wrapped in fresh salmon, char-broiled then served in a garlic-cream sauce over home-made seafood ravioli. Wash this down with a garlic beer (much, much better than it sounds) and you’re guaranteed a seat alone on the flight home!

For traditional Lappland specialities of salmon, gorgeous fish soups and tender raindeer steaks, head for Lappi Ravintola (tel 645-550), Annankato 22.

There are lots of places to get expensive, stylised Russian food, but when Russians come to town they go for the delicious down-home (and reasonably priced) Russian food at Babushka Ira (tel 680-1405), Uudenmaankatu 28 right in the centre.

Early Hours
A fun place to start a night out is Molly Malone’s Irish Pub (tel 171-272), with good beers and live Irish music on weekends. Then head for the Kallio district, about 1 km from downtown and packed with typical Finnish pubs and beer gardens, or for the flashy and trendy pubs that line flashy and trendy Uudenmaankatu, in the centre.

Sunday Service
The city’s premiere Lutheran church, in Senate Square, is currently closed for renovations, but its main competitor, the Temppeliaukio Church, Lutherinkatu 3, is worth a visit for its unusual architecture: built into rocks, it looks for all the world like a downed UFO. The best bet is to attend Russian services at the largest orthodox cathedral in western Europe: the glorious brick Uspenski Cathedral, Kanavakatu 1.

A Walk in the Park
There are bits of green throughout Helsinki, including Goff park at the southern end of the centre. And to get away from it all – or from what passes for hustle and bustle in Helsinki – head straight for Pihlajasaar, a wild island where you’re immediately immersed in the quiet of the countryside (except on weekends, when you’re immersed in crowds of Finns looking for the quiet of the countryside!).

Seurasaari’s yet another island, a combined historical park, picnic area and swimming spot. Lined with 19th century houses, the island’s also got some small beaches.

A Warm Welcome In The Russian Far North

Though it’s been open to foreigners for a while, getting travel information on Russia’s Arctic Kola Peninsula remains a little tricky.

Bureaucrats walk an unfamiliar line. Trained by Soviets, they’re unwilling to divulge information, but a desperation for foreign visitors and their cash requires openness. The results are often amusing.

“Camping,” booms Vladimir Loginov, chairman of the Murmansk Regional Sports Committee, “is legal anywhere on the Kola Peninsula. Except in the places in which it is not.”

The Kola Peninsula is an enormous knob of tundra, forest and low mountains between the White and Barents seas. It is one of the most ruggedly beautiful, unspoiled and desolate areas on the planet – an adventurer’s destination that’s accessible to everyone.

Travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow has become commonplace, but the Russian wilderness, the stuff out of Dr. Zhivago, remains mysterious and alluring. Such is the attraction of the Kola Peninsula with its herds of wild reindeer, dramatic mountain formations and fishing villages.

Its first tourists were Lapp herders, but the discovery of a northern sea route in the 16th century turned the tiny settlement of Kola into an arctic trading post.

Thanks to an eddy from the Gulf Stream, the Kola Inlet from the Barents is ice-free year-round, making it the ideal site for the port of Murmansk, and now, at nearby Severomorsk, for the Russian Northern Fleet’s home base.

I arrived in Murmansk with feelings of both elation and dread: elation that I would be among the first post-Soviet Western travel writers to explore the peninsula and some of its tiny towns, and dread because, though the temperature had dipped below freezing (this was in August), the famous arctic mosquitoes were huge and dive-bombing.

Location, Location
Perhaps the most novel thing about Murmansk is its location – halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, and 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Because of the Gulf Stream, temperatures are more moderate than you’d think, ranging from 8 to 17 degrees in January; 46 to 57 degrees in July.

Despite the isolation, Murmansk and many other cities in the region are remarkably bustling and modern. Because of its military importance, Murmansk was always a privileged city in terms of supplies and consumer goods. But today the entire area is swimming in Western-made foods and goods.

Murmansk’s suburbs tower above the city. No suburban sprawl here. Instead, large, colorful and clean apartment buildings are built on the mountainsides. The city center, where Prospekt (Avenue) Lenina meets with Five Corners (Pyat Ugla), teems with bundled shoppers. Stores have names like Northern Lights, 69th Parallel, Penguin and Polar Star.

The winter cold isn’t as bad as the darkness – “polar night” means non-stop dusk through December and most of January, though locals say they feel the impending gloom by the end of October. Outside the city there is just tundra; little wonder that the population turnover is 20 percent a year. People leave because of the darkness and cold, and new ones arrive seeking the higher wages that those conditions bring.

Sightseeing
What’s a tourist to do in Murmansk” See the harbor, St. Nicholas Church (Svyato-Nikolskaya Tserkov, named for the patron saint of sailors) and the new Fine Arts Museum and go for a swim in the municipal pool.

The best harbor tour, weather and sea permitting, is on the Kola Inlet. You’ll go south toward Kola (you won’t see the Northern Fleet but you will see the city). Mostly you see shipyards and tundra. Go to the Passenger Ferry Terminal and hop a ferry to Mishukovo. Ferries leave six times daily, and the 30-minute journey is about 75 cents each way.

St. Nicholas Church would be impressive enough, even if it didn’t have such a colorful history. In 1984, the congregation from the little wooden church that was on the site decided to build a cathedral, and began doing so in secret. It’s hard to hide a cathedral, and when the government found out about it in 1985, miners were sent in with orders to blow it up. This raised a holy stink, and demonstrators sat around the site, blocking the miners; simultaneous protests were held in front of the Moscow city executive committee.

The government capitulated to some extent, letting the part of the church that had been built stand but forbidding any further work on it. After perestroika greased the country’s religious wheels, construction resumed in 1987 and continued over the next five summers.

Today St. Nicholas Church is the Kola Peninsula’s religious administrative center. To get there from the railway station, take trolleybus No. 4 for four stops, walk past the pond and up the stairs, then along a dirt trail to the main road. The cathedral is on the right. Services are held Monday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The new Fine Arts Museum at ulitsa Kominterna 13 finally got a permanent collection two years ago. The small but interesting collection includes graphic arts, paintings, decorative applied arts and bone carvings, all on an “image-of-the-north” theme. Admission is about 50 cents for foreigners, 25 cents for Russians and students. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.

It’s hit or miss, but in the summer there’s a chance to see one of the Murmansk Shipping Co.’s four atomic-powered ice-breakers at the dock (they’re enormous and very orange).

Photography, except in the port itself, is legal now, and you can photograph anything you see from the railway and passenger sea terminals or on board the ferries.

Murmansk’s municipal swimming pool, at Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev behind the central stadium, is just amazing: 50 meters (55 yards) long, with three-, five-, seven- and 10-meter diving boards. There are two kiddie pools downstairs plus a banya or two (steam baths, see accompanying story). It’s open June to October from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is about $1.

Lappland Nature Preserve
Buses and trains from Murmansk to towns along the peninsula’s western corridor are cheap and frequent. Heading south, our first stop was the Lapland Nature Preserve near the ecologically devastated city of Monchegorsk.

This UNESCO-protected preserve consists of 1,860 square miles of almost pristine wilderness. About half of it is virgin tundra; the rest, alpine grasslands, marshes, rivers and lakes. It was founded in 1932 to protect the area’s reindeer herds, still among Europe’s largest.

The park can be visited by individuals or small groups (fewer than 12 people) under limited conditions by advance arrangement. You can trek through the wilderness or traverse it on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Costs vary but are generally very low. The preserve is run by a non-profit organization.

Apitity
We continued south to Apatity because some Swedes living there had offered to show us the area. When we arrived, we found them running the godsend-to-tourism Scandinavian Study Center, which acts as liaison to Western groups and individuals who want to explore the area.

“This is one of the most beautiful areas in the north,” says Peder Axenstein, who has lived in the area on and off for four years. “We just hope that people will come and see what’s here, and not be afraid to explore the wilderness outside the cities.”

Indeed, Apatity, the Kola Peninsula’s second-largest city, founded as a geological studies center in 1966 on the site of a former gulag, isn’t very attractive to those outside scientific circles.

But it’s an excellent jump-off point for hiking, climbing and skiing expeditions in the nearby Khibiny mountains, and for hunting trips. Who knows, you may even get a chance to see Yeti, the Bigfoot-like creature who locals say pops into the region now and again (16 1/2-inch footprints have been found).

Apatity is also a cultural center for arts and crafts. The wonderful Salma Art Salon, at Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo 1, is a true cooperative venture: It’s privately owned by, and shows and sells the work of, more than 200 Kola Peninsula artists. Prices are low, and the management can arrange for customs papers to get the merchandise out. And musicians and music lovers from all over the region gather for the free bi-weekly concerts and recitals held here.

Kirovsk
There’s not much to do in Kirovsk, 17 miles east, except ski, but the skiing is the finest in northwest Russia. The city hosts the annual All-Europe Downhill Freestyle Competition.

Kirovsk and its suburb, known not by its Russian name but simply by the moniker “Kirovsk-25” (signifying its distance in kilometers from Apatity) are nestled in the Khibiny mountains, separated by a winding mountain road. The center is tiny and easy to navigate, and all the skiing takes place near Kirovsk-25.

The slopes may look easy but those mountains sure are steep. The 17 lifts are mainly tow ropes, and lift tickets are 50 cents per ride, or $4.50 for a day pass. There are eight trails, as well as a children’s trail and lift.

The Kazanskaya Church, just outside Kirovsk-25, was built on the site of another church that had been moved from Kirovsk. The inside is lovely, with an impressive iconostasis and the reputedly miraculous Icon of St. Nicholas. On the night of May 21, 1994, the icon incredibly restored itself, and now works its miracles Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break between 2 and 3 p.m.

Take bus No. 1, 12 or 105 from Kirovsk center toward Kirovsk-25, and ask for the church. From the bus stop, walk west (back toward Kirovsk), turn south (left), then turn east (left again) and the church is 600 feet on the right side of the road.

The best sight here, at the northern end of Kirovsk-25, is the surrounding mountains, or rather the lack of half of them. (They look like those models you used to see in school of a cutaway section of a volcano).

Local scientists insist this was accomplished by the use of earth movers and heavy equipment (though some say it would have taken a nuclear blast).

Portions of this piece were extracted from Lonely Planet’s Russia, Belarus & Ukraine guide, with permission from the publisher.

First Day Of School: Dear Parents

kid-with-allergiesAs you know, one of our students, Edgar, has a number of allergies and we ask that you be understanding in ensuring that the classroom remains free of certain materials and foodstuffs to assure that all students are able to enjoy the most nurturing learning environment possible.

Edgar is allergic to ground nuts, so kindly refrain from bringing peanuts, peanut butter, or any variant, including but not limited to earthnuts, ground nuts, goober peas, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts and pig nuts. It’s not commonly known that peanuts are not nuts at all, but rather legumes – so it is imperative that your child not bring to class any food containing legumes such as bambara groundnut, black eyed pea, chickpeas, common bean, cowpeas, fava or broad beans, hyacinth bean, lablab, lupins, moringa oleifera, peas, pigeon peas, soybeans, sterculia, velvet beans, winged beans, yam beans and several species of vigna. Green beans should be fine. however please avoid at all costs allowing your child to bring alfalfa, arachis, albizia, clover, lupins, stylo or, of course, vetch.

We’re sure you understand and will be considerate of Edgar’s condition.

Additionally, as you know, Edgar is highly sensitive to tree nuts, or “true nuts”, so kindly refrain from bringing almond, beech, black walnut, brazil nut, candlenut, cashew, chestnuts (including Chinese chestnut, malabar chestnut and sweet chestnut), coconut, colocynth, cucurbita ficifolia, filbert, gevuina avellana, hazelnut, hickory (and shagbark hickory), indian beech, kola nut, macadamia, mamoncillo, maya nut, mongongo, oak acorns, ogbono nut, paradise nut, pili nut, pistacia, walnut, and water caltrop. Naturally, acorns, brazil nuts, candlenut, cashew, chestnuts, chilean hazlenut (Gevuina), hazelnuts, hickories, malabar chestnut, mongongo, pine nuts or pistachio are also highly problematic, as are derivatives, such as pesto sauce. And please ensure that, if you make chili, that you use no beans, or meat, or tomatoes (see Appendix A, Nightshade Variants) and certainly refrain from using peanut butter in the chili.

Feel free to use nut-like gymnosperm seeds such as Monkey puzzle or juniper, but please, no pine nuts especially including single-leaf pinyon or of course, Mexican or Colorade pinyon.

Edgar’s sensitivity to certain fabrics will require slight changes to the classroom environment, as his extreme sensitivity to pile and nap mean that needlefelt, knotted, tufted or flatweave, plain weave or tapestry weave carpets are problematic. Specifically, damask, haircloth and of course double-cloth, two-ply, triple-cloth, hooked or embroidery can cause discomfort or bloating. Armenian carpets, especially including artsvagorgs and vishapagorgs (though not otsagorgs) are of particular concern. Please also avoid polyethylene terephthalate and Polytrimethylene terephthalate, acrylic, wool and wool-blended or acrylic carpets.

Sisal or Berber should cause no problems.

We are also concerned about chert, flint nodules and carbonate, especially calcium carbonate as found in traditional classroom chalk. This can cause chafing and other irritation; additionally, the aerosolized version of this, typically found in the dust trapped by the felt fabric of the chalkboard erasers (felt is another material to which Edgar has exhibited possible signs of allergic reaction) is also problematic. Unfortunately, Edgar’s sensitivities to alcohol based ink solvents 1-propanol, 1-butanol, diacetone alcohol and cresols
typically found in dry-erase markers make whiteboards unusable (also note that the xylene or toluene found in permanent markers is highly irritating to Edgar and can cause an immediate reaction). Finally, the active matrix color or TFT LCD screens on most contemporary computers cause Edgar light sensitivity and increased blinking and eye dryness, so please refrain from using computers of any kind in class.

We thank you in advance for your understanding and consideration. And we’re looking forward to a year that is exciting, educational and most of all, FUN!