Russia in Review

UPDATE: You can now link to our photos from the Russia page. Check them out!

If you take a look at the navigation bar at the top of the page, you’ll see we’ve added a new section: Country Summaries. We’ll be creating a page in this section for every country we visit. You’ll get a quick link to our posts and photos related to that country, along with a summary of our experience in that country. I’ve got the Russia summary up and ready so please go check it out.

But before you get too excited, let me disappoint you and say that I don’t have photos up yet. I really, really wanted to get that done tonight, but remember that part about me not being a night person? Yeah, still true, and as it’s now less than an hour until midnight, it just isn’t going to happen. I hope to get to it tomorrow, and I will update this post to let you know when I do. But please don’t hold your breath—tomorrow is our last day in Stockholm (can you believe it?) and I have a ton to do.

Also, we’re still uncertain about where/how we want to host our photos. Is Flikr the best option? If you have any insight into this, please comment and let us know. And please go ahead and check out the written part of the Country Summary and let us know what you think. All comments and suggestions are welcome!

Observed in St. Petersburg

*Street sweepers use birch branch brooms, though they use them very efficiently. By mid-morning, the streets were always clean and tidy. But they definitely had their work cut out for them, since Russians leave their beer and vodka bottles absolutely everywhere, most times broken.

*Garbage cans apparently set fire often, because we passed one near a busy bus stop and everyone acted completely unsurprised.

*A communist era holdover, three people commonly occupy the job of one. Every museum we went to had a person who’s job was to direct you to his/her left, where the lady in the ticket office would sell you a ticket, then another lady next to her to take your ticket and allow you in the museum. Literally. All in a row.

*Russians must have phlegm issues because loogies were all over the sidewalks.

*Though the temperature outside consistently stayed around 50 degrees Farenheit, ice cream was the most popular street food. Go figure.

*Brides were all over the city. We ran into multiple large wedding parties drinking champagne and taking pictures at every iconic place we visited, as weddings commonly parade around to city landmarks and party all day long. It was inspiring to see so many joyous people out and about.

*Its tragic to see Russian soldiers who lost limbs simply ambling around without them. Its shameful that the government gives them no aid with it. Of course, the US gov’t cannot be said to treat their veterans much better.

*Why do people who look very unstable and unsure of themselves on roller blades feel the need to roll right down the sidewalk of Nevsky Prospekt? The sidewalks are jammed with walkers, the roads are jammed with crazy cars, and here are people who do not seem to know how to turn or stop trying to navigate it causing disaster at every step.

St. Petersburg by Moonlight

I am not a night person. When midnight strikes, I like to be in my pajamas (well, okay, let’s be honest—I’d live in my pajamas if that were socially acceptable) and on my way to bed. I’ve always been a person who requires a good night’s sleep, and I seem to have been born without the ability to truly sleep in, so this generally means that I don’t party into the wee hours of the morning. Jeff, much more of a night owl than me, has learned not to expect much out of me once the moon rises, so I guess it’s only reasonable that he thought I was joking when on our first night in St. Petersburg I suggested that we stay up to watch St. Petersburg raise the bridges.

But I wasn’t. I did in fact want to go out at 1:30 a.m. to look at bridges.

With 42 islands and 60 rivers and canals, St. Petersburg is a city of islands connected by bridges. These bridges are all rather lovely, coming in a variety of shapes and sizes with all types of statues and lamp poles and other such decoration adorning them but sharing one main feature—they’re not high enough for serious river traffic to pass under. Thus every night beginning at 1:25 a.m. the bridges are raised drawbridge-style in successive order from the Gulf of Finland inwards, so that large barges and other necessary boat traffic can pass through the city. They then stay open until 4:30 a.m., allowing all the boats through (and trapping all the cars).

I’d heard that watching the bridges be raised was a popular event, and I decided that we should see it. And being the thinker that I am, I decided we really needed to see it the first night because the two-hour time difference between Stockholm and St. Petersburg meant that it didn’t really feel that late to me. (I hadn’t miraculously become a late night lover.) Though Jeff laughed and refused to believe I was serious at first, he eventually got with the program, and we went out.

I’m glad we did.

St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, but by night, it is an enchanted city. The tsarist buildings that define St. Petersburg are lit, glowing ethereally under a dark sky. The ever-crowded daytime sidewalks have been mercifully thinned to just a smattering of people. The winds have all died, and the September air, while crisp, is not cold.

In the Palace Square outside the Hermitage a musician played haunting songs that lingered in the air before being swallowed by the river. On the river, crowds did congregate. A few rowdy souls swigged beer and vodka, but most people were quiet, almost reverential as the bridges broke in the middle and slowly lifted until each half stood at attention. Large barges, apparently waiting for this moment, chugged through minutes later, one followed closely by another, and small cruise boats maneuvered in-between shuttling tourists down the river to witness the spectacle at bridge after bridge. It’s a bit funny to think about or try to relate—literally hundreds of people gathering to watch a bridge go up seems a bit odd at face value—but it really was a neat experience, and as we walked down the magical streets back towards our hotel well after 2 a.m., the tourist propaganda claiming this to be a “romantic” experience seemed somehow to be a little bit true (even to a girl who could very well claim the least romantic person in the world award…if Jeff didn’t beat me out of it).

Looking Up

St. Petersburg is perhaps best known for the Hermitage, its amazing collection of art spanning 3000 years of human civilization and an entire globe. What I found more impressive than this, though, was the building it was housed in, the Winter Palace. Built in the 1750’s by Italian architects, it was the winter residence of the Russian Tsars. The sheer opulence and grandeur of so many of the room was simply astounding. The intricacy and detail in the ceilings impressed me most (my dad was more impressed with the detail work of the floor … also incredible). Since the visuals really defy words, I’ll let the photo collection below of the ceilings tell the story. (For the record, this is a temporary arrangement as for tonight, I give up on trying to integrate photos in nicely … picasa plugins are not playing nice so far).

First Impressions of St. Petersburg

At the Russian embassy in Stockholm: Wow, this is easy. And she’s actually nice and helpful. I thought that this was supposed to be so difficult that you threw your hands up in despair and just gave up. Am I missing something? Am I going to show back up to get my visa only to find out that I didn’t do some obscure task and now I can’t have one?

Upon arrival at the St. Petersburg airport: I think that soldier is wearing the same uniform in the same ugly green and the same scratchy material as WWII soldiers wore. In fact, he looks like he could have walked straight out of some film based on a Stephen Ambrose book.

On the drive from the airport to the Grand Nevsky Hotel: Whoa he drives fast. Oh shit, we’re totally going to hit that car. Look at that ginormous statue (Monument to the Historic Defenders of Leningrad ). It’s soooo Soviet. Did you see that church? It was gorgeous. Oh this one’s even better. Damn, traffic is terrible. Holy crap, I think that trolley car could be classified as an artifact. Oh shit, it almost hit that Hummer limo. Oh look, a Zara is about to open in that huge old communist looking building.

On a first walk around the city: This place doesn’t feel very Russian, not that I know exactly what Russian feels like. It feels more like Europe…a bit Scandinavia, a bit Berlin, maybe even a little Amsterdam with all these canals. Brrr, that’s a cold wind blowing off the Neva. I totally need one of those Russian fur hats. Or maybe a bunch of vodka shots. Seriously, this is all still the Hermitage? Where does it end? Woohoo, I can totally read Russian. It’s just like Greek…oh except what the hell is that letter, that’s a new one. So yeah maybe I can sort of kind of read it.

On a visit to Peterhof: This looks like Versailles. The fountains are awesome. The palace, eh, it’s a palace. Aren’t they all the same…opulent and overdone. Gold and gold and oh yeah, more gold. That ticket lady is totally a holdover from the communist days. Is that scowl permanent? I love the way the Russian tourists strike a pose for every photo as if they’re supermodels. And the fact that they are walking around these giant gardens in insane high heels as if it’s no big deal if just freaking insane.

As you can see, I’ve had a wide array of reactions to St. Petersburg in my first 24 hours here, and I have not found an easy way to sum it up. Established by Peter the Great as a window to the west, it still is a strange mix of east and west, Russia and Europe. So far the most prominent impression I have is of St. Petersburg as a city of new money.

Of course, in its earliest history, St. Petersburg had money. This is obvious in the palaces and churches, fortresses and bridges…the centuries-old structures built during the heyday of the Romanovs. But in the past century, St. Petersburg has seen hard times. As Leningrad, it suffered terribly during the German siege of the Second World War, with millions of people starving to death and the ravages of war becoming everyday reality. Later, communism did the city no favors. Construction was utilitarian, depressing, gray. The city’s magnificent churches were gutted and used to store potatoes or converted to swimming pools. Even if you had money, there was little to buy.

Now, it seems to me, that St. Petersburg is trying to shove that recent history from memory. Cranes criss-cross the skyline. Stores and shops and malls are opening everywhere, and everything stays open 24 hours a day. Western franchises are prospering. (We even saw a Carl’s Jr.!) Fancy cars race down the street. And fashion is at the forefront (even if it’s not what I’d call fashionable). St. Petersburg is a city on the rise…again. Yet at the same time it’s a city heavy with history and so long as there’s a bubushka on the street, a minibus pulling up at the corner, and a monolithic Soviet statue in the square, I think it will remain a city torn…between East and West, between Russia and Europe, between history and future. And in my opinion, that’s at least half the reason why it’s such an amazingly interesting place.

(We’re here through Monday, so expect to hear more about St. Petersburg in the following days. And if you have any suggestions for St. Petersburg, let us know!)

A Sign of How Strange Our Lives Have Become

Jeff leaves for Sweden tomorrow, and I follow 1.5 weeks later. We’ll be there for a total of 6 and 4.5 weeks respectively. While there, we’ll take a 5-day trip to St. Petersburg, and we may also visit Estonia and Latvia. That’s kind of big, right? Yeah, I’d say so. But from the way we’re approaching it you’d think we’re doing nothing more than flying home for the weekend.

In the past, I would have made twenty-seven packing lists by now. I may have even packed twenty-seven times. I would have made a list of all the things I want to see and do, searching blogs and travel boards, guidebooks and websites for the best of everything. I would have fretted and stressed. I would frankly have thought about it a whole hell of a lot more than the approximate 3.7 minutes I’ve spent thinking about it so far.

But this time I’ve done none of that. I’ve done nothing at all actually. Maybe it’s because we’re both so busy tying up loose ends and finishing up big projects. In between confirming elevations and trail distances or reviewing the figures in scientific papers, we haven’t had time to worry about whether we need to pack warmer clothes, whether we should take an extra plug adaptor, or whether it’s best to be at the airport two hours or 1.5 hours before departure time.

Maybe it’s because we’ve both lived abroad in Europe before. It’s familiar. It’s almost easy. I know that if I don’t pack a toothbrush, I’ll easily be able to buy one. I know that if I don’t pack enough underwear, I can easily do a load of laundry. I know that the transportation system makes sense, that Internet is widely available, that food is familiar, and that they may speak English better than I do. The fact that Jeff has traveled there every year for the past five and many times in the years prior to that, can carry on a conversation with that rare Swede that speaks no English and that, hey, he carries one of their passports around, makes it seem all the more easy and comfortable.

Or maybe it’s the fact that seen against the background of the trip we’ll embark on upon our return from Sweden, this trip seems small and incomparably simpler. We don’t need immunizations or immodium. We don’t need cable locks and yellow fever certificates. We don’t have to debate whether to take the chicken bus or pay a few extra bucks and splurge on the tourist bus. We don’t have to ponder the best way to approach a squat toilet. While our round-the-world trip will have us almost exclusively in the developing world, this trip will have us in one of the world’s most developed countries.

I don’t mean to trivialize our trip to Sweden, and I don’t mean to say I’m not excited. I’m sure once I board my flight across the Atlantic, it’ll hit me. I know I’ll end up with lists of places I want to visit. I am certain at some point I’ll worry about what I did or did not pack (though in mid-air it will be rather futile). I have no doubt that I’ll take a million photos and find thousands of things to marvel at. It’s a trip that a short time ago would have seemed huge…and which is, in fact, huge. But right now it’s kind of like looking at a lake while swimming in the ocean. And I can’t help but be slightly amused by that.