St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg was my first stop, so it took a while to get into the swing of things. I arrived late in the afternoon, and night time is not the greatest time to go exploring. Luckily, two things were working in my favor. First, I've been traveling a lot lately, so I'm in the habit of forcing myself to go out. Second, my hotel room was so weird that I needed to stay away until I was very tired. The place was filled with dark wood, had dark fabrics and was, well, dark. This is not to say that the furnishings weren't ambitious, but simply that I felt like I was in the black forest surrounded by pumpernickel. The bed had a dark brown floral cover, and was incredibly narrow. The bathroom had ribbons over the toilet and tub that said "DESINFECTED", though the tub looked like the person who "desinfected" it wore boots while they did it. The sink was balanced precariously on two brackets, and I was sure that it would crush all the bones in my foot if it fell. Where hotels in the West have small bottles of shampoo and skin cream, this place had a single plastic packet in front of the mirror. At least I wasn't babying myself, since it would be a shame to come all this way to watch television all night.

I went downstairs and checked out the lobby. The Hotel Moskva was a 1960's monstrosity. The lights were dim and the ceiling was a honeycomb of cement, but the desk people seemed OK and the clientele looked like anyone else. Apparently this was normal. I changed some money, used the computer in the business center to dispatch an e-mail to London, and bought a map of the city in one of the stalls. I had thought that the Intourist stall was empty, but when I passed it I found instead that the stall was taller than the woman who was sitting in it, even with the extra height her platinum wig gave her. This was good luck, since I was able to book a city tour for the next day. It was luckier still since it was 8PM. Though this is normal in the US, I've been living in London for 2 years, and people are generally scarce after 5 unless the place in question is a pub. People in Russia work the same hours that Americans do, which I hadn't expected.

I walked outside, and turned down Nevsky Prospect. Nevsky Prospect is the most famous street in Russia, with all kinds of shopping, not to mention palaces and architecture. It has places you would recognize, like KFC and Baskin-Robbins, Armani, DKNY and the like. It looked just a little grubby, but people were well dressed and reasonably happy looking. I tried to take it all in without looking like I was out of place. I walked Nevsky Prospect from end to end, and tried to make notes of what I might see at a later time. There were shops full of fashion and shops full of food not the Russia that I had heard about and it was only natural that things would be completely different than I had imagined. People look extremely modern and consumerish, and even if it turns out they're not doing as well as it looks, they dress fabulously and strut around as if they own the place.

This was the first of many walks that I would take up and down the entire length of Nevsky Prospect. The architecture is from the 18th century, with many mansions, canals and bridges. It's very beautiful, though parts are covered with grime. It seems like a lot of renovation is going on, but also like the money to rebuild isn't coming quite fast enough. Up and down Nevsky Prospect are the trolley-buses, which are a very strange amalgam. A trolley-bus has the sections of a trolley and takes its power from overhead lines through a huge antenna in the back, but the wheels are bus wheels and it can steer. They're all covered with mud. Some are formerly red, and others are formerly green or blue. I even saw one that was formerly pink. They were always heaving with people, so I chose to walk or to take the Metro. Likewise, the cars are covered with mud, and only get a wash when it rains. Most of the cars are Ladas. The Lada gets you where you're going, but it's not a monument to style. I decided then and there that I didn't want to meet my end from a Lada what would people say? I would rather get gored by a BMW than to be swiped by a Lada, and that pleasant thought kept me out of trouble the entire time I was in Russia.

One of the unexpected pleasures of the first night came when I went into a store to buy some food. They had a million types of cold cuts and bread. I also discovered that the way to buy these things was slightly different. You order at the counter. They prepare whatever it is that you ask for and give you a receipt. You take that receipt to the till and pay, at which point they give you another piece of paper to bring back to the counter. Finally (provided you live that long), you get your goods. I should add that in this store the till was right across from the counter. I bought two types of kolbasa (salami) to bring back to my room, and they were delicious. Russian salami is positively the best, despite all the dire warnings of certain people I talked to. Restaurants may not be that great, because I think that eating out in Russia is more for the scene than the food. But the materials you can buy for eating at home are very good. That night I also discovered Baltica beer, which is very tasty.

I also bought bottled water for brushing my teeth, since the guide books said there was a chance of getting giardia from the tap water. I normally don't pay attention to this type of warning, since there's no end to how much you can worry yourself. But to get sick at the beginning of the trip wouldn't be right, and giardia is a nasty condition that causes gastric discomfort. I decided a long time ago that I would rather go temporarily blind than not to be able to eat. So, I brushed my teeth from the bottle and went to bed. For good measure I slept on top of the covers, just in case I wasn't the only living thing in the bed.

The next morning I went out on the tour. These tours are great to take the first day, since you get a good view of the entire place, no matter how embarrassing it is to be seen with fellow tourists. On this account I wasn't disappointed, since the other people should have been on permanent exhibition. They consisted of two missionaries: a dotty mother who interjected all the wrong things at the wrong times, and her outstandlingly obese daughter, who tucked her money belt under her breasts. They were on their way to Novgorod to convert people and spread the Word, the one problem being that they didn't know a word of Russian. They were content to talk about religion, politics and everything you don't talk about, leaving me to worry about trifles like architecture and history during the infrequent lulls. This was OK, though when they insisted on having lunch at McDonalds I finally had to put my foot down.

The tour was quite good. We saw the log cabin where Peter the Great stayed when he was having the city built. We visited the battleship Aurora, which fired the shot that inaugurated the Russian Revolution. We saw the University, a convent, and a monument to the Decembrists, who staged an unsuccessful coup against the tsar in 1825. Somewhat upsetting was the fact that my camera battery was dead, and I couldn't take any pictures for the entire day. I had planned not to bring a camera along since it might get stolen. Then I planned to bring a cheap camera along, which didn't have a focus. After discussing it with several people, their opinion was that the pictures are worth more than the camera, and good travel insurance should cover the loss if you're careful about where you stash the film. Clearly, I had thought about everything (except, of course, the batteries).

Before the Hermitage, we made the obligatory visit to the souvenir shop. This was a place in the middle of nowhere, and we had over a half-hour to get acquainted with everything. My companions, who had pleaded poverty until this moment, set on all the matrioshkas, lacquer boxes, dolls and other tacky things that defy description. I had no intention of even looking, so I tried to strike up a conversation with the tour guide. She said that she had studied English at the Institute of Linguistics, and I wanted to know whether she knew anything about how they looked at theoretical linguistics in Russia. I'm a fan of Vygotsky and Luria, and wanted to know how they're viewed. One thing led to another (clearly she didn't know anything about theoretical linguistics but didn't want to tell me), and she mentioned that Chomsky (an American linguist) isn't held in such high regard in Russia. Except, she said, for one thing. He has a doctrine of innatism which would explain why the Russian people haven't changed in recent years they are what they are and can't change their nature. After all, where in Western languages the most important point of grammar is the verb, in Russian they spend the most effort on the noun, which is static as compared to the verb.

My jaw dropped. For one thing, Chomsky states that language is innate to humans, but as a leftist (which the Russians would surely like) he would never say that races of people have a personality. And to say that language determines how you think (the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis) would probably give him a stroke, since grammar is a system of expression rather than a determinant. But what it did tell me was that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the troubles that followed were a shocking blow to people's confidence, and that each person is trying to explain it in terms that they can deal with. The two missionaries mentioned during the trip that Russia had "lost" the Cold War, which I'm sure, didn't make the tour guide feel any more comfortable. The discussion had some comic relief when the dotty mother came in with two equally hideous dolls and asked us which one we thought was nicer. "Oh, you're talking about Noam Chomsky?", she said. "You know, he's famous in America, too."

The trip ended with a tour of the Hermitage. The Hermitage Museum is in the former Winter Palace, and is so huge that it's impossible to see nearly as much as you would want to. Nonetheless, our tour guide did an amazing job of getting us in and out of exhibits that you absolutely have to see. Her tour lasted almost 3 hours, and then I stayed for an extra two. I'm still kicking myself because I didn't see the Central Asian collection, but perhaps my head would have exploded had I stayed any longer. There are also books of photos I could probably buy as I need them, but I really do wish that I had a few more days to look around.

The next morning I had breakfast in the hotel. They had a cavernous restaurant called "Salt and Pepper", which was the type of place where you have wedding receptions. The breakfast customers sat on the upper level, which was a large balcony, where downstairs in the center someone was playing piano. I've never been to a restaurant where they play piano at breakfast. There were plastic flowers and plants all over the place to liven things up. There were many salads and cold cuts for breakfast, and tried as many things as I could fit in. Later I found out that Salt and Pepper is pretty well known, and it gets good reviews for the food and service.

I took myself to see St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Peter and Paul Fortress, and this time I had camera batteries. Later on I went to the Nevsky Monastery, which was right across the street from my hotel but starkly different from the cement pie where I was staying. The Nevsky Monastery is a "lavra" or exalted monastery, and one of 3 such monasteries in the whole country, and the original purpose of Nevsky Prospect was to provide a road from the palace to the monastery. It was very peaceful at sunset. The most impressive thing for me was the graveyard, where Dosoyevsky's grave is. I also saw the graves of Russia's most famous musicians: Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Cui, plus other famous Russians who I don't know. The urns on top of the stones gave it an Addams Family feel, and I liked the cemetery very much.

My train was leaving that evening at midnight. There's always a difference between when you leave and when you check out of the hotel, and this evening I would have to stay out since I had no hotel room to go back to. I had bought a ticket to the ballet since there were no concerts of music and theater would have been wasted on me since I don't speak Russian. It was a production of Don Quixote at the Mariinskiy Theater, which was formerly the Kirov. As with all the street names, everything was reverting back to the way it was before the revolution, which can be confusing for tourists who never knew any names in the first place. I took the metro to the nearest stop, but I think that the Intourist lady who sold me the ticket had never been to the place in her life. I walked and walked and walked. I had planned to get to the theater a half-hour early, and after 45 minutes of walking I still wasn't there and it was almost time for the performance. The map told me I was on the right track, but I had a way to go.

Finally, I realized that I was almost there, and also that I had to run I was going to see the first act. I saw two women crossing the street, and what followed could have been directly from the dialogues that I studied in my Russian lessons before I left:


That little dialog saved me the cost of being turned away with a $55 ticket in my hand. Yelena is a fabulous Russian teacher, by the way. I ran like hell, got to the theater, sat in my seat and the show started.

The only hitch about the ballet was that is was ballet. I do think that ballet is one of the silliest art forms known to man, despite its technical difficulty and all the scantily clad young people who prance around. There was no plot, except that they interrupted the dance from time to time, so that everyone in the story could go and have a dance. According to choreographers, this is what people in the real world also do for a living. As an added attraction, Don Quixote would ride onto the stage on a real horse, and Sancho Panza would ride a real donkey. They would dismount, and after the animals were led away, the usual suspects danced some more, with a very enthusiastic chorus in the background. Despite the fact that the ballet was completely silly, it was very well done, and I did enjoy myself. And I had succeeded in staying out the entire evening. As the hundreds of curtain calls continued, I slipped out, grabbed a cab, and met my lift to the station for the midnight train to Moscow.