Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Apple Pay” at Last!

Greetings everyone from the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk, Russia, home to around 300,000 hardy souls. Now in truth, I never expected to be able to write to you at this point in our trip, but we have successfully arrived at our starting destination one day early, and to my surprise, our hotel has complimentary Internet. Not only that, believe it or not, I have so much to tell you since I last wrote, that I simply did not want to wait for two weeks!

Let’s start with this issue of “Apple Pay.” Simply put “Apple Pay” is a way in which you can use your phone to electronically pay a restaurant bill or any purchase for that matter, simply by placing your phone on top of the checkout machine, and by using your thumbprint the bill is automatically charged to the credit card of your choice! Now I will admit that it is not yet even common at home, but it is becoming more so every day. I have turned that phrase, however, into a joke by asking at almost every location where we have shopped if I could pay by “Apple Pay?” Generally people look at me as if I’m crazy and speaking a foreign language, and if I explained, then in some cases they have heard of it, but their country does not yet support it. In fact, on this entire trip so far I have not yet been able to make a simple payment using “Apple Pay,” until today. It had gotten to the point that Lisa would give me a disapproving look every time I asked if I could use “Apple Pay,” because people simply did not understand, and she thought I was being rude rather than cute. Out of all the places in the world, I was finally able to use my phone to make a payment – at the northernmost “McDonald’s” in the world. Hooray for good ole “McDonald’s!!”

Our trip from Oslo to Murmansk was a rather roundabout journey. We departed Oslo at 6 AM in the morning on Lufthansa Airlines, Business Class, headed for Frankfurt Germany. I say that we were flying business class, however it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. We were seated in exactly the same seats as everyone else in the airplane, with the exception that there was no one placed in the center seat of a three seat configuration. The airline did put some kind of a strange contraption in the center seat which meant that you could not raise the armrest in order to gain extra room. In other words, we were pretty much flying a slightly modified Economy Class. From Frankfurt, we had a very short turnaround before departing on another Lufthansa flight with yet another slightly modified Business Class seat. This time we were headed into St. Petersburg, Russia.

There will several things that I have worried about with regard to this trip that I have not yet shared. For one thing if truth be told Lisa and I both are having a great deal of difficulty walking, and we have finally had to succumb to accepting wheelchairs. Now the macho male in me rebels at even the thought of this, but without the wheelchair there is absolutely no way that I could have done the necessary walking in these airport terminals. In addition to the wheelchair problem, I was very much concerned about what was going to happen to us when we arrived into St. Petersburg. I had had so much difficulty obtaining my Russian Visa that I have had nightmares of being turned away by the authorities. And finally, as if all of that was not bad enough, our next airline was going to be Aeroflot, and I was truly concerned if they had enough duct tape to hold the airplane together. Then, just to make things interesting, it appears that sometimes Aeroflot doesn’t talk to other airlines since our bags could not be transferred between airlines. That meant that when we arrived in St. Petersburg, we had to get our bags, exit the terminal, and find a way to get to the check-in counter where once again we had to go through security in order to find our gate. I will tell you the truth, I had many sleepless nights about how we were going to pull this off, particularly when you consider our limitations in walking.

Well, all my fears proved to be for naught. We were met at our airplane by two wheelchairs, and two young gentlemen, I came to call Frick and Frack. Both of these young men spoke excellent English, and they immediately understood our problem, even though in advance they had no idea that we would be transferring airlines, nor that we were going to be required to pick up our baggage in the process. At first, I wasn’t sure if they really understood what was needed, but the next thing I knew Lisa and I were off on the wheelchair rides of our lives. These two gentlemen were racing each other through the terminal trying to see which of them could get down the crowded walkways the fastest. I swear on more than one occasion I thought we were going to hit some young child or older person, only at the last minute to be subjected to a death-defying turn as we raced along at a record pace. As if that was not bad enough, these two gentlemen kept opening secure doors and taking us the back hallways and down hidden elevators. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the baggage claim area. We had two wheelchairs that needed pushing, they were each pulling behind them our carry-on bags, and now they had our full-blown suitcases to deal with! I tell you what, it didn’t even faze them. One of them grabbed a cart and put our bags on it, while the other somehow managed to push two wheelchairs down the hallway at the same time!

At this point, I figured we would have to go back outside again, but another series of back hallways and elevators suddenly brought us to the ticket counter where the lines were very long. Never mind the lines because Frick and Frack went right for the front. In the process, they took the passports out of our hands, and before we knew it, we had boarding passes, and the passports back, and our bags had been checked through to Murmansk. I will admit that we got more than a few hard stairs, but it was done. Then we were off through a series of tunnels, more elevators, backdoors, and suddenly we came to a private security line. It was here that Frick and Frank could not quite pull their magic. While we had no one in front of us, I would say that if anything security was more stringent on us than would have been the usual. They literally tore Lisa’s carry-on bag apart as well as her sleep apnea machine (CPAP). But except for this little snafu, the next thing we knew, we were standing in front of our departure gate. This entire process, about which I worried about so much probably took no more than 20 minutes. But wait, for Frick and Frack just realized that we were traveling Business Class! That means that we don’t want to go to our gate, but that we want to go to the special lounge reserved for Business Class passengers. So before we can say a word, there was another extended journey where we were carefully seated in the lounge with our bags at our side. I started to give Frick and Frank each a gratuity, but they declined saying that they would be back in time to see that we reached our flight in a time – and then they disappeared.

Well at precisely the right moment, they returned again. We were then off on yet another race through the terminal to see who could get to the gate first. WHOOSH! Arriving at the gate, there is no way that you can get to the front, so Frick and Frank find a way around the lines and before we know it, we are admitted to the boarding ramp, even before the plane was ready to board. Staying until we could board, then they took us onto the airplane, put our bags into overhead bins, and make sure that we were comfortably seated, and then Frick and Frack almost declined to gratuity.

I’m telling you this story, because it’s one of those that you simply can’t make up and you could never see it coming in advance. I was in for yet another surprise: Aeroflot Airlines. Lisa and I found ourselves in a very clean, modern Airbus 312, where in the small Business Class area, we were seated in some of the most luxurious, leather seats I have encountered. The two male attendants could not have been more accommodating to our needs, since we were the only passengers in Business Class. The Economy Section of the airplane was completely full. In other words, Murmansk doesn’t see a whole lot of tourists, even when it’s at the height of their tourist season.

For those of you who are pilot types, I will share with you my observation that our approach and landing into Murmansk was somewhat unusual. The airplane was doing a cruise altitude to what appeared to be around 5000 feet above the ground, about an hour away from Murmansk. As we descended the aircraft slowed down, and once we reached 5000 feet, it continued to slow until reaching an airspeed of around 130 knots. The reason this caught my attention is because an aircraft like this likely would land at 140 knots or so. At this point, the nose of the aircraft was very high. Several times the airspeed deteriorated to as low as hundred and 115 knots, and the pilot was having to use considerable power to keep the airplane at a level altitude. Why we had to fly so long, so low, and so slow is a mystery to me? However, it did make for an exciting flight.

We arrived at our hotel in early evening last night making for a very long day. We were escorted to our “Special Suite,” only to find a small room equivalent to a Motel 6. But hey, all things considered, it may have been a long day, but we are safe here in Murmansk, and with all of our bags, and I can put my fears to rest. I really did not think I would have a chance to share this with you before we set off on our great adventure, but I did have time this afternoon, and we have the Internet – so I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.

Take care everyone, and we’ll catch you on the flip!


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