Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More travels...

So Piter...

As I was saying, Petersburg is the city of my dreams. When I walked out of the metro onto Gostinyi Dvor and saw Nevsky Prospekt and everything that had been so familiar it was like heaven. It's so strange that it had already been one and a half years since I was last there, that I was 21 then and am 23 now, that I have changed so much, especially in terms of my Russian and familiarity with Russia since then. It's interesting to try to measure the change in yourself against fixed things like cities. I found, however, that it's not always so simple. There are a lot of variables, things that were familiar that I only know understand, parts of the city that have radically changed while I was away. Revisiting streets, squares, monuments, museums, churches, and people really put a lot of things in perspective. It was a strange and overall, positive experience.

To start, the city really is pretty gross in the winter. Every Siberian will tell you that you're much better off facing -30 degree tempatures in Siberia than the disgusting dampness of Petersburg, and it might just be true. I take for granted how dry Tomsk is. It's too cold for slush, wet snow, and rain. Matt and I have a theory that it might even be too cold for a lot of germs in Siberia. Both of us had enjoyed pretty incredible streaks of good health in Siberia, but the further west we headed, the sicker everyone got. The dampness of Petersburg just compounded all of it and made a few of us pretty miserable.

Anyway, we had a pretty great time in our friend Lauren's incredible apartment right in the very center of the city. When I lived there in 2007 I was on the northern coast of Vasilevsky Island, which was closed off by the drawbridges at night. Living so close to everything and in such a beautiful, old neighborhood was really a treat, and you can't beat free lodging with friends. We cooked incredible meals, stopped into the Hermitage and the Russian museum, and somehow ended up sitting on stage for a production of the "Magic Flute" in Russian at the small hall of the Marinsky. We had some ticket problems and just barely made it to the right theater in time, but instead of being locked out, we were directed to seats literally feet away from the performers. I can't say that I'm a big opera fan, but being that close really helped me to get into the whole thing. It was a really wonderful experience. I only wish I had jumped out to sing a bit with the chorus. We really could have.

Best of all, I paid a visit to my old host mom and her daughter. I brought some wine and chocolate (not church wine like I did the first time I met them, thank God) and they already had a huge spread of tangerines, salads, meats, and all sorts of wild stuff ready and on the table. It was really wonderful to see them again! My host mom was exactly the same as she always was. She called my beard unattractive and swore that no girls would want to kiss me. When I told her I had been living in Russia she was shocked to find that I don't have a family yet. Whoops! We reminisced about all of my wacky misadventures from the summer before, and I tried to convince her that Tomsk was also an okay place to live. She told me all kinds of stories about long-lost relatives and bread-ration tickets. Great. Also, I met up with a friend Ksyusha who I had met the summer before. She told me about all sorts of interesting and outlandish things she's been involved with and working on. She's really brilliant. She has all kinds of funny ideas about revolution and anarchy. We went to an Indian place for tea and found a copy of Tarkovsky's poetry on their shelf. She had given me her father's copy the summer before, when I couldn't find one, and since then she has fallen in love with his poetry and his son's films (like me). It was funny that they had it there of all places, and, as I later found, they even had an excerpt from a poem written in the menu. The waitress came by, saw that I was leafing through the collection, and said that she is also a huge fan.

I was really sad to leave Petersburg so soon. There's so much more I'd like to see. I really hope I get to spend some time there as a grad student some day. There's something about the place that you don't find in Tomsk. Diversity, namely, in every aspect of life. There's so much culture and so much history that just emmanates from every building and every street. When I was cross the street I passed two Russian girls enthusiastically discussing Dostoevsky. So refreshing to hear!

Oh yeah, I went in the Kazansky Sobor (on Ksyusha's recommendation, which I didn't know you could do), and it was so beautiful! Anyone who'll be there should stop in. My favorite part was the flags from Napoleon's army and keys to various Parisian palaces that the Russians snagged after chasing Napoleon back to France. They're still triumphantly on display there, almost as if they're holding onto the keys in case they ever need them. Hope nobody ever thought to change the locks!

Let's see, we had an uneventful, empty couple of flights through Riga (where Abbie's peanut butter and Matt's multi-tool were promptlyconfiscated, despite having made their way safely through Russian security) to Amsterdam.

What a city! A shining, beautiful little slice of some far-fetched utopia! Even in the winter it was warm (with a few exceptions), and the locals just pedal around all day on their bikes, smiling serenely as if it was the most beautiful of summer days. There are so many bikes! I had never imagined such a bike-friendly city! I've never done urban biking, but the five of us rented bikes on the first day and hardly left the seats! Luckily, Lauren and Matt are pretty experienced bikers and good with directions. My memories of Amsterdam consist almost exclusively of us jetting around, from bridge to bridge, embankment to embankment, here and there and back again, in circles day and night, for four days, on our cruiser bikes. I'm so sad that I have to go back to my bikeless, icy, Russian existence. Maybe I can still find a used one?

We hit the museums hard, including the Rijksmuseum, the Sex Museum, the Van Gogh, and the Cat Museum (on the recommendation of a local friend of Abbie's who we just happened to see on the street). It was some really incredible art and we really took the time to take it all in, discuss it, appreciate it. We even noticed two flies hidden in paintings, as if they were flying by the artist while he was painting. Here's one. Zoom in and look to the left of the boat in the middle: http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/images/aria/sk/z/sk-a-447.z .

We did a lot of speculating about Dutch culture, about which, admittedly, we knew and still know very little. We decided they have something figured out that we don't. It's hard to describe, but everything there seems to run so smoothly. People really seem happy wherever you go. It's hard to describe, but anyway, it was nice to see, and I'd like to take a little piece of the Dutch mentality with me, whatever it is.

Okay, so now we're in Berlin, at another hostel. It's been really nice staying in these hostels, meeting all sorts of young people from all over the world. I wasn't counting on that being an added bonus. We saw a Jeff Koons exhibit that I didn't like and a Paul Klee one that I absolutely loved. We followed the old Berlin wall all the way around town and checked out the East Side Gallery, where there's a lot of famous graffiti. Let's see, there's a lot more, but I'll get to it later. It's late and this post is already pretty long. I'm having a blast, but missing everyone and everything in both America and Russia. In other news, I might give myself a moustache!

Love you,

Monday, January 19, 2009



I've been on the road for about 18 days now. I took the train through Russia, stopping to stay with my buds in Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg, the third and fourth largest Russian cities respectively. Seeing my friends has been wonderful, and getting to see so many different Russian cities has been quite an experience. I feel like I have a much better perspective on Russia as a whole, better, in fact (and in part(, than some Russians, who've never been outside of Petersburg or Moscow, and who scorn the smaller "regional" cities as primitive and backwater.

We saw quite a bit in those few days. Novosibirsk, so close to Tomsk geographically, is a whole different beast of a city. Enormous, uniformly grey, very young, very Soviet, but as Matt (Fulbrighter living there( would tell you, not without its charms. Ekaterinburg is famous for a number of reasons. We visited a church recently constructed on the spot where the Tsar's family was murdered. It was pretty moving. It's also the rock capital of the Urals and Siberia, if not all of Russia. From what Abbie tells me and from what I saw, the music scene there is pretty great, especially by Russian standards. We even went to a Beatles-themed bar. The river there translates from some local language to "stinky dog river". It did smell. In fact, all of the water there smelled pretty foul, worse, in fact, than a stinky dog. Anyway, Tomsk is dwarfed by these two little-known metropolises. They both have metro lines (Ekaterinburg even has two hypothetical lines sketched on the metro maps in the wagons... luckily Abbie was there to keep us from trying to transfer onto them.

So the three of us continued the train trip all the way in to Petersburg. I could tell you a lot of things about Russian trains, good and bad, but I'll just mention a few. People bring all kinds of food and booze on, pack mini-feasts even. Really. One of our bunkmates named Sergei brought an entire, enormous chicken for the ride, but about half-way through he started trying to sell it to us and to the attendant ladies. No sales. He also tried to steal my pocket knife and trade phone batteries with Matt. All in all we rode the trains for about 2.5 days, stopping only to buy chips and beer from ladies who wait by the stations. You can't use the toilets when the trains stopped, or half an hour before or after a stop, which makes for some difficult situations when there's nothing to do but eat and drink for days at a time. One form of currency that goes a long way on a Russian train is being able to play the one Russian card game that anyone knows, "Durak", which means something between "idiot" and "asshole". Anyway, as Matt explained when he taught us in Kiev, you basically have to know the game to successfully ride trains in Russia. We played until we could play no more. Once we played with this surly Russian man, who was so good that by the end of the game he knew exactly who had what cards and collected cards specially to ruin other people's hands. Amazing. By the time we got to Petersburg we were ready to be done with the whole train thing. I got fined for sneaking my luggage onto the metro, but I didn't care. I was in the most beautiful city in the world!

I'll continue this post later, because my friends are waiting for me to start a game of Durak, but stay tuned for stories from Piter, Amsterdam, and Berlin!

Love you all,