Friday, June 25, 2010

White Nights Are the Best Nights

Hello again from Russia!

Wednesday night was, without a doubt, the best time we've had so far on our trip. We experienced the white nights first hand, which involved a pretty late outing, but it was worth it. Each evening in St. Petersburg, the draw bridges must be lifted so that large boats and barges may pass through. The lifting of the bridges, during white nights, is quite the social event for locals and tourists alike. The setting for this occurrence is so whimsical and ethereal, like being in another dimension. To be specific, we ventured out from our hostel at 1:30am, and when we reached one of the main bridges on Nevsky Prospect (the major drag here in S.P.), the bridge was already up. Drunken boat captains were recruiting passengers for their mystical nighttime cruises. Hippies blowing and dancing with fire drew a crowd on the banks of the Neva. Exhausted adolescents crippled by too much beer and too high heels staggered in the streets. It was lovely, exuberant madness. We even saw a man dressed like Darth Vader. Anything was possible.

We sipped on some canned Gin & Tonics, available at any convenience store, and watched the boats pass through the open bridge. Around 2:30am, the sun finally set, casting a pink glow over the whole city, setting fire to the gentle ripples on the river's surface. White lights outlined the edges of the bridge, setting it apart from the pastels on the horizon. The scene was breathtakingly beautiful. This was truly a unique experience that I will always cherish. We sat on a ledge, talking politics with our Czech companions, drinking until the sunset morphed into sunrise. To be sure, full darkness never settles here. In a preternatural sequence of moments, what you've been witnessing as the setting of the sun suddenly becomes its ascent. I don't know many places on earth where this simultaneous phenomenon occurs. We were stunned.

After a couple of hours at the river, we decided to head back to our hostel. We happened upon a 24-hour Subway on the way. It was 3:30am, and we were hungry. The restaurant was crowded and filthy. The meat was mysterious and watery, and the bread undercooked. I braved the restroom which was as frightening as any horrific moment in the Communist revolution (see the lower appendix entitled "A Word on Russian Water Closets"), and John cursed the employees because they were out of sweet onion sauce. Then he had a beer. It was a memorable meal.

As you might infer, we were forced to sleep in the next morning. Once we finally rolled out, we hopped on the metro, got out at the bus station, then rode out to one of the famed tsarist summer homes, this one entitled Peterhof Palace. This site is best known for its elaborate fountains and location adjacent to the Baltic Sea. We admired some lovely architecture, marveled at the fountains, walked out to the sea through the royal gardens, ate some hot dogs, then headed back to the city. We didn't visit the inside of the palace because of the fees we already had to pay to get onto the grounds alone, hence the lack of historical perspective and artistic musings here. You can't walk five feet in this city without paying for something (once again, see the lower appendix on restrooms). Each building in this complex called for a separate ticket, aside from the rubles we shelled out just to get through the gates. It's ridiculous. Regardless, we had a fun, if frugal, time.

That evening, we dined on Russian fast food at Teremok -- a chain specializing in the Russian favorite, bliny. Bliny are a lot like crepes, but better. This restaurant had dozens of possible fillings from caviar to cabbage to caramel apple. They also served up all the traditional Russian soups, including a delicious borscht which I had to exchange my initial soup for. The cold vegetable soup that I ordered seemed harmless enough. Vojta translated it (there was no English menu to speak of) as a cold vegetable soup made with beer, garnished with sour cream. Sounds great. The girl at the counter retrieved a bowl of raw veggies from the kitchen, plopped in a generous amount of sour cream, then, to my horror, filled the bowl to the top directly from the beer tap. That was the "broth." It wasn't even regular beer, it was this strange, low alcohol, yeast drink served at most fast food restaurants in Russia. Imagine a cross between Bud Light and grape soda...extra yeasty. I took a few bites of the soup, that was also garnished with super hot horseradish mustard, then had to wave the white flag. It was the weirdest, and probably most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. I don't want to hear any crap from any of you until you've tried it, either. It was traumatizing.

A Word on Russian Water Closets
1) You aren't allowed to flush your TP. You have to put it in a little trash can next to the shitter. Eeeew.
2) In public places, you always have to pay to use the potty. I learned quickly to lower my water intake. At night, after a few beers, a dark alley will suffice.
3) The hand dryers never work. Don't even bother trying.
4) Cleanliness standards are slightly lower than those in the
U.S. This is a euphemism.

Today, we awoke to thunderstorms, so we stayed in bed until the sun came out. Great idea. Once out, we walked a few kilometers to the Dostoevsky museum, located in the flat where the author wrote The Brothers Karamazov, and eventually passed away from a chronic lung disease. We took an audio guide to lecture us through the few rooms of the apartment, a great investment. We learned so much about Dostoevsky's life; that he was well loved and respected by Russians during his lifetime, was a dedicated father and proponent of family life, and a tireless advocate for the well-being of his fellow man. The tour was incredibly informative, and quite moving, at times. John was thrilled to find such a reward after plowing through both Brothers and Crime and Punishment before our trip. After this excellent excursion, we walked to the cemetery where Dostoevsky is buried, along with his wife and stenographer. John was the only one who went in. The rest of us didn't want to pay. I'm sure it was great.

Near the cemetery is the complex housing the Alexandre Nevsky monastery. Inside is a beautiful graveyard and gardens, along with another lovely Orthodox cathedral. We quietly entered the church during the saying of the liturgy, a very bizarre type of religious service. One monk recites scripture quickly, like a trance-inducing, singsong incantation. The faithful respond by crossing themselves at appropriate times and rocking back and forth. During the invocation, a hidden choir of monks chimes in with eerie, musical callbacks. Throughout the church, set to this soundtrack, old women, heads covered, walked from icon to icon, kneeling to the floor and touching their foreheads to the cold stone. They then rose and kissed the objects of worship, Jesus's feet, the Virgin's cheek, the soil of Jerusalem. Their lips moved rapidly in desperate prayer. It was very emotional. We felt much like intruders, so made our rounds, then exited into the sunshine. Again, a unique, unforgettable experience.

After some quick dinner from a street vendor (schwarma good), we caught a tour boat and experienced the city via canal. We were too lazy to search for a tour in English (few and more expensive), so we settled for a Russian narrator. Despite the communication gap, it was a lovely ride. Can you guess what we did while we're right! Beer! It was a great evening trip and a must-do for tourists in S.P. We had a wonderful time. Now we're back at the hostel, resting up for a big day at the Russian museum tomorrow. It's our last day in Russia tomorrow, so we hope to make the most of it. Love to everyone at home!

Interjection from Kochancz:
OK, it's been awhile since I've said much on this blog. Katie pretty much sums up my opinions, and I'm quite content to let her speak for me. However, I feel like some of our readers might be interested in hearing a little something from me at this point. Our trip in
Russia has been fascinating, as Katie has aptly described. In America, we often don't think other cultures too much. We have our own problems, and it is usually enough to worry about our individual stuff from day to day. Culturally speaking, Russia is at the far end of the world for us, an exotic place that was our traditional enemy for so long, and in many respects, a place which we are unable, or unwilling, to understand. Katie has illustrated most of what I'm trying to convey here, so I won't repeat too much. I am very thankful to Vojta and Zuzka for extending an invitation to travel here. Without any knowledge of the Russian language or the Cyrillic alphabet, it would be next to impossible for us to travel here. Vojta has been our mouth, and we really appreciate his effort and proficiency with the Russian language. I find it intimidating to order even a hot dog here without his help.... That being said, the place is wonderful, and the Russians find it interesting and amusing to see Americans traveling through their land. Some Siberian guys told us that we should tell all of our friends to come, and there is nothing to be afraid of. I agree, but we still must be aware of the differences. All in all, we have come to a place where most Americans avoid for historical and communications (some come for short periods on cruises and tours, but it is infinitely easier to visit Western Europe), and it has been an extremely rewarding and informative visit for us. The geographic aspects of the visit have been very cool, as we are farther north than the major Alaskan cities (but the climate is much milder). We are both very happy to have come here, but it will be very welcome to arrive in Prague and settle down for the month.

Side note on Dostoevsky:
OK, I have turned into a bit of a Dostoevsky nerd in the past year. I've plowed through two of his major novels, and I must say, this was one of the best literary choices that I have ever made.
Saint Petersburg features prominently in Dostoevsky's works, especially two that I have read, Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground. Here, the city becomes the setting for major existential drama, the place where humanity functions on both its and basest levels. The landscape allows for some horrifying acts, but also becomes the ultimate outlet for humanity and religion. Although Dostoevsky has been criticized for using religion as the end-all-be-all for the existential problems of the human condition, here you can begin to see how he formulated these ideas. Placing this in perspective with the history of Russian politics and society (Dostoevsky himself was condemned to execution before being pardoned at the moment of his death and sentenced to several years of hard labor in Siberia...), the author possessed an amazing view on humanity and the relationships that we share. He ultimately suggested an alternate path for the Russian people, one not based on revolution, which he figured would ultimately lead to totalitarianism and repression (and he was right), but one where people would relate through good ole' peace, love, and understanding. I'm risking a basic ramble here, so I will conclude. Don't be daunted by the page counts in Dostoevsky's novels. He offered something which writers today won't contend with. The major tragedy is that his vision was unfinished. He died before he could complete the second half of The Brothers Karamazov, and had visions for several more novels in mind. I found immense pleasure standing in his old house today, or standing before his bones in the cemetery, even though it cost me 200 Roubles... The books are basic in the canon of literature, and visiting the locus of this literature has been one of the most rewarding of pilgrimages.

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