Celebrating a Birthday in Russia

A 7-time traveler shares trip memories and tips on traveling light at Home-Hosted parties

A week before her 69th birthday, Deby Weinstein found herself surrounded by strangers—and loving every minute of it. She was attending the Moscow Circus, one of her favorite experiences on her Russia Revealed: Moscow to St. Petersburg River Cruise. “The circus was wonderful,” Deby says. “We each received a ticket, but from then on we were on our own.” Deby reveled in the experience. ”You sat with throngs of Russian children, people—you walked in with everyone else. We were really immersed,” she remembers. As for the show itself? “Like no other circus in the world. It’s like a theater in the round with a little stage in the center. There were dogs in costumes, dogs doing tricks, a marvelous acrobatic act—they came so close you felt like they were going to reach out and touch you!”

Not your average Big Top: The Moscow Circus has a grand, theatrical feel.

But you won’t find Deby in outfits anywhere near as colorful as a circus performer's, because this expert packer stays within one color scheme and only takes one piece of luggage. Her most valuable piece of travel advice: “Pack light!” Even when preparing for her trip to Russia, the Madeira Beach, Florida, resident found a way to fit everything she needed for her 15-day excursion in one carry-on bag.

“It’s really not that hard,” she said. “First of all, always carry a pair of woolen gloves and hat. On the Russia trip I made sure I packed the same-weight pants, one pair looser than the other so I could layer for varying temperatures. You could place tights or leggings underneath too.” Layering is the key to packing light, Deby says. “It’s the warmest and best way to avoid packing bulky sweaters or extra coats.” She also swears by the windbreaker provided by Grand Circle. “I wear it a size big so I can layer t-shirts underneath,” she says. “It also has lots of zippered pockets so you won’t have to carry any extra bags, plus it rolls up into a neat little ball.” Finally, she suggests limiting the palette of your wardrobe to avoid packing more than necessary. “Anyone can do it. Just coordinate your colors—and plan your packing list at least a week before you leave.”

Deby on the deck of the M/S Rossia, cozy in her cleverly-layered wardrobe.

When it comes to traveling light and in style, Deby may be a master—but when it comes to being a traveler, Deby considers herself a student. “I always read and do research about a place before I go,” she says. Once there, Deby loves to really immerse herself in the culture around her. She especially enjoyed the opportunity to wander Uglich. “When you got off the boat in the Uglich you were right there,” she recalls. “You could walk around the village to your heart’s content. There are still the old rutted roads and people who didn’t speak a lick of English—it was very unique and authentic. “

Storybook views of the town of Uglich, as seen from the Volga River.

There’s no better way to learn something than a hands-on experience. Deby was delighted by the exclusive Discovery Series events hosted on the M/S Rossia, especially the workshop on matryoshka dolls. While the travelers sailed for Kizhi Island, they had the opportunity to learn how matryoshka—Russia’s famous nesting dolls—are painted and were given their own wooden dolls to decorate themselves. “I loved it!” said Deby. “We had so much fun—my sister Gail [Halverson] and I even had a little competition with each other. Everyone had a great time and Grand Circle provided the paints, brushes—everything we needed.”

Deby and her fellow travelers tried their hand at painting matryoshka dolls like these. "I wanted to get the face just right," she recalls.

Deby also decided to take an optional tour to witness one of Russia’s most famous forms of artistic expression: the ballet. And if an Evening at the Russian Ballet wasn’t extraordinary enough, Deby was also fortunate to be celebrating a special milestone of her own the same day. “I spent my 69th birthday at the Russian ballet!” she tells us. “Not many people can say that. That made it extra special.”

But the most culturally immersive experience Deby would be part of was her Home-Hosted tea. “Tatiana poured us mint tea from her grandmother’s samovar. We enjoyed cabbage rollups (piroshki) and apple turnovers ‘from the bakery,’ [Tatiana] admitted to us with a little smile. Each delicate china table setting was a one-of-a-kind, passed down in her family.” It was a warm, intimate experience Deby will not soon forget. “Tatiana was an excellent example of Grand Circle’s approach to Home-Hosted events,” Deby says. “She answered our questions about her life and her country, and she asked us questions about our lives and America.”

Samovars, ornate metal urns used for boiling water and brewing tea, are a fixture in traditional Russian homes.

Deby is also happy to share her life experiences when she returns from vacations—by hosting Grand Circle Travel Parties. “I’ve never used any other travel company but Grand Circle,” she says. “What drew me to hosting Travel Parties was that I found every experience with Grand Circle to be excellent; I believe in their travel philosophy. Plus the way they build the cost of each trip makes it easy to budget. The itineraries are detailed and the optional tours are so nice to have. I like it so much I wanted to share it with my friends and neighbors.”

So is it as nice to give as it is to receive? Deby certainly thinks so. “Two of my friends have decided to take the Old World Prague & the Blue Danube trip,” she says. “One in particular was very excited. She’s in her 80s and has never been to Europe before. I showed her my scrapbook from when I took that cruise and told her about my trip. She’s always wanted to go to Vienna , so she signed up.” Sharing her love of travel gives Deby as much joy as the travel itself. “That’s for me the best experience. [My friend] is so enthusiastic. I know she’ll have a wonderful time; it’s been a dream of hers.”

A dream Deby helped come true.

If you’d like to learn more about this trip from our travelers, check out this video featuring Grand Circle Cruise Line travelers like Deby describing—in their own words—what made their experiences in Russia so memorable.