Monday, July 19, 2004

Time flies. This is my last blog entry in Russia, and probably my last until we get back to the States. We plan on taking a little walking tour in London tomorrow ("London tomorrow"--that sounds nice) but that all depends on how things go with the flight and the airport. We're due into Heathrow at 2:30pm, and if all goes well we want to be in downtown London from 4:30pm or so. I don't know how realistic that is, but we'll see. I was going to rent a car to drive around London but Bella threatened me with various complicated and/or painful repercussions, and besides, it was going to cost $175 for the day, so we'll take the tube instead. We've been packing for the whole evening, and Bella and I are finally settled down to our last evening tea in St. Petersburg at 11:15pm. We spent the mid-afternoon at the Russian Museum looking at some really cool Russian folk art. Everyone liked it, even Alison, who is usually pretty hard to deal with in museums. She likes them, but she needs constant attention from one of the grownups (usually me) talking to her about the art or sending her on little missions. Today the stuff was so interesting all she needed was the occasional boost to see the things up on the top shelves. One of the babushki even wanted to show her around one of the rooms. I think everyone is being nice on purpose to make us feel bad about leaving. Everyone except the post office, that is. Last week we went to the local post office to mail some books back home (around 25 pounds) at a cost of 1700 rubles (about 57 dollars). Seemed pretty steep, especially when you consider that the very next day we went to the Central Post Office to mail about 35 pounds of books and they only charged us 1200 rubles, or around 40 dollars. To add insult to injury, we just got a letter from our local post office today stating that they decided to charge us 190 rubles more just for the hell of it, and they're not mailing the packages at all until we pay. So we're leaving town at 11:00am tomorrow, but before that, one of us has to go to the post office to pay the extortion. Maybe I am ready to come home.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

We're down to our last two days in Petersburg, and we spent today (Sunday) going around doing a little last minute shopping and visiting the Hermitage. There's this incredible exhibit there of Impressionist art that was confiscated from the Nazis during World War II. The paintings were mostly stolen from Jewish collectors during the Holocaust, so ownership is a little unclear. Thus the works have been squirreled away until just recently, which is a shame, since the art in the collection is so amazing. There are works by Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Seurat, and others that are in some cases as good or better than any works by these artists that Bella and I have ever seen. We bought the catalog, which doesn't really do justice to the originals at all, but we can show it to anyone who's interested back home.

We spent yesterday with Alyona, who took us out for a spin in her brand new Lada/Zhiguli

and besides the fact that she drives like a chasnik trying to get over the Palace Bridge before they raise it for the night, we had a great time. She showed us some of the remoter areas around the Gulf of Finland, we saw some barn where Lenin hid out for a few days before the Revolution, and even got to visit the house-museum of the famous Russian artist Ilya Repin. The house was really fantastic. I took a million photos so I can build one just like it someday. Maybe in Costa Rica.

A couple of days ago, we also caught up with Marietta again, who wanted to show us a new exhibit of old art at the Russian Museum. The exhibit was great, lots of interesting pre-Revolutionary stuff from Goncharova, Malevich, Lentulov, and a bunc of other artists you probably never heard of, and me either until the other day. They were part of an art movement called the Jack of Diamonds, and it was very cool. The kids are fed up with museums already, but they liked the cafe we went to afterwards, a really great, inexpensive place called Pro Kofi (I guess it's a play on the name Prokofiev). Bella wants to go back to the Russian Museum tomorrow to see the Russian folk art, but I'll see if I can talk her out of it.

Well, it finally happened. Over the last few days, we've undergone a sort of transformation (I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the students have all gone home?), and Bella has finally admitted that she's starting to like it here. We've both decided that we're going to miss it. She's not ready to go back next year, but maybe the year after. Maybe we'll even plan a trip for the winter sometime, when fares and prices are lower and the town is less packed with tourists. My Russian has finally started to get good (well, not good, but at least I can follow a conversation and deal with people on the street), and I'm almost sorry I'm not going to be able to practice anymore for a while. Of course I can continue to practice at home, but it isn't the same as being forced to communicate for survival every day.

Bella and the kids have been talking about things they miss back home for the past few days, and while I do miss lots of things back home, I'm spending too much time trying to commit Petersburg to memory to think of of very much else.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Just a few more days until we're back home. Alison has been asking "Are we going home tomorrow?" every day for the past week. Here are some pictures from the weekend Andrei came to visit here if you're interested. Just click on the thumbnails to get the larger pictures, but I'll just post the clickable thumbnail of my favorite one below

Bella and I went with the kids to dinner at Natasha's parents' apartment way out by Peterhof on Thursday night. It was so nice to have a meal at a friend's house, and Natasha's parents are really great people too. It turns out that her mom had seen me and Alison the other week walking along the street on Liteiny prospect not far from our house. She saw some guy with a little girl up on his shoulders and thought she had recognized the faces from somewhere. She went back home that night and remembered that Natasha had told her that I carried Alison on my shoulders all over the place, so she looked through Natasha's photo album and there I was. It's amazing that in such a big city people can just bump into each other. It was even stranger since we had actually never met until after she saw us on the street that day, but she still knew who I was. Okay, enough with the six degrees of separation. After meeting Natasha's parents, it's easy to understand why Natasha is so great. Her parents are so warm and open, and her dad and I had fun trying to finish an entire bottle of Smirnoff vodka. Not that lousy stuff they export to America, either. This is apparently some heir to the real pre-revolutionary Smirnoff name who sometime around 1991 re-opened the factory in the original Moscow location of the first Smirnoff wine factory. In fact, they even call this new Smirnoff "Table Wine #21." This company is even suing the other Smirnoff for copyright infringement. We drank it at room temperature, and it was still pretty good. I made the mistake of saying how much I liked the vodka and her dad gave me another bottle to take home with me, so anyone reading this back home (Rob, Bella's mom) might want to help me sample it and the many other varieties of "Table Wine" I'll be bringing back with me.
Today the students have their last day of class and then their closing ceremony, and Mischa then has to run off because she's actually leaving for home today. Most of the others will be leaving tomorrow very early in the morning, and Bella and I will probably spend the weekend tying up the loose ends, packing, and maybe even do a little sleeping. This past couple of weeks have been pretty high-impact for us, so some sleep and a few days of no alcohol will be great. Cutting down the number of kids we have to deal with from 13 to 2 will also be a bit of a break. Of course, last night we had our farewell party at "Kolobok", a weird-but-pleasant Russian fast food/bar/cafe and everyone had a really good time. Their pirozhki (little pies filled with meat or potatoes or eggs or cabbage) are first-rate, and most of the other dishes were excellent, there was a big-screen television, and there was free use of a computer with high-speed internet connection. The place takes credit cards AND gives a 25% discount for ISIC card holders. I guess my only complaint is that they close too early (at 10pm). The party actually lasted until 10pm, when some of the group sensibly went back home. The others decided to head over to the Dublin Pub, the last Irish bar in the city they hadn't tried yet. I think the only thing that differentiates an Irish pub in Petersburg from any other pub is that they have Guinness on the menu in the Irish pubs. Since the students never order the Guinness when they go to these pubs, I'm not sure what the attraction is. For my money, I prefer going to the Shamrock, since Tom, a W&M alumnus, is a lot of fun, and because the bar is just a nice place to hang out.

After spending so much time around the students, I got to know them fairly well, so I've decided to hand out some awards for achievement in the face of adversity. Here are some of their merits, as I see them. All awards are at the sole discretion of the management and are not subject to review.

John: darkest wardrobe; most inquisitive

Caroline: best raincoat; most cheerful

Ed: best mustache; strangest interests

Joanna: least likely to hit a policeman

Scott: best kisser

Ryan: best bacterial host; thirstiest

Shelley: best frolicker

Mischa: cutest German accent

Paul: tallest; best backhanded complimenter

Susannah: most independent; easiest to carry

Patrick: most likely to end up living in Russia and working at the Shamrock

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Just another week before we're on our way home, so I'm not sure how many more entries I'll be able to get to before we leave. I'm up late writing because I can't fall asleep after hearing a woman screaming for about 5 minutes on the street. I have no idea if it was just an alcohol-induced hysteria or if there was really some horrible tragic event she was trying to draw attention to. The drunks outside our building didn't seem to care what was going on, and by the time I woke Bella up, the woman's screams were incoherent and coming from further away, and after a few more minutes, the screaming stopped altogether. I just can't shake the feeling that something really bad happened and I was totally unable to help. I'll just write a little to take my mind off things.

We've been walking around the area north of our apartment recently, just south of Tauride Gardens and east of the Summer Garden, and Bella and I both agree that we really like this area of Petersburg. It's not as crazy as the very center of town on Nevsky Prospect, but there's still a lot of life, with cafes, restaurants, shops, lots of young couples and families walking around. The places aren't as trendy, the heels aren't as high, the prices aren't as steep, and we actually feel comfortable hanging out here. Andrei, Bella's childhood friend came to visit us this weekend, and we spent most of the time with him just walking around the city, or hanging out at home, drinking and talking. Well, I mostly listened and pretended to understand what was going on, except for the night we drank the whole jug of wine he brought from the winery in his town. My fluency in Russian is directly proportional to my blood alcohol content. Anyway, Bella told him the story of the bear on the trolleybus, and sure enough, he immediately wanted to know if it had a muzzle.

We had already bought tickets to see Swan Lake the night Andrei was coming in, so Bella decided that he was just going to have to suffer along with the rest of us. We should have taken it as a bad sign that the day of the performance we were still able to buy him a ticket in the front row of the very next section. It was a pretty weird performance, with the dancers sometimes looking more like the Moiseyev Folk Dance ensemble's understudies than actual ballerinas. In fact, they even wore shoes with heels on them instead of ballet slippers during the ball scenes. The principal dancers seemed to know what they were doing, but it was just not a good performance overall. When you consider that there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 ballet companies performing either Swan Lake or Giselle every night during June and July in Petersburg, it's easy to understand that good dancers are at a premium in the city. Well, I begged Bella to let us go to the Shamrock Pub after the first act (I actually got down on my knees) but she was unmoved.

We finally did make it to the Shamrock after the second act (not even Bella had the fortitude to sit through a third act), and the place was hopping. We went into the back and sat down at a booth with Andrei and both kids (I felt peculiar bringing a 5 year old and a 12 year old into a bar at 10:30pm, but we really wanted a hamburger), and Alison had brought her juicepack from the theater with her (she's a very slow drinker). The waitress finally came over to our table, people are smoking and drinking all around us, there's a band playing some British Rock too loud, and the waitress starts making some comments to Bella, motioning over at Alison. I understand that there's a problem, and I'm afraid that we'll have to leave the bar because Alison is so incredibly underage. Nope, Bella explains, the waitress just reprimanded us because Alison had brought her own drink into the bar. I probably could have ordered her a shot of vodka and the waitress would have brought it in a sippy cup for her. Well, Alison was the party girl all night, even convincing me to take her over to go hang out with Tom, the owner, and some of his friends for a while. Josh wandered over to a group of American college students at another table and just sat down with them for a chat. Andrei was the only one content to hang out with Bella and me. Have I mentioned how much we all love the Shamrock burgers?

The next day we took Andrei to an interesting Serbian restaurant he said was named after a movie (Black Cat, White Cat) near our apartment. Most of us had shasklyk of some kind or another, except for Josh, who got a stuffed chicken filet. In Russian restaurants, the dishes come out in the order they're ready so everything reaches the table relatively hot, but the problem is that I might get my mail dish before someone else gets their appetizer, and I might be done before they even get theirs. Well, Josh was the lucky one that night, and his stuff didn't arrive until everyone else (even Alison) was done with their meals. Well, his chicken comes out, and it looks awfully red to be chicken, so Bella asks the waitress if that's actually chicken, and the waitress tells us of course it's chicken, it's just dark because of the way it's prepared. Well, it wasn't chicken, it was beef of some sort, but Josh was hungry and the beef was good, so he ate it with some help from me and Andrei. When the waitress came back with the check, Bella told her that Josh's dish was good but it wasn't chicken, at which point the waitress admitted to picking up the wrong dish in the kitchen. We noticed that it took a long time for them to figure out our bill, and there was lots of gesticulating and pointing over at our table, and we figured they were trying to decide what to do about the mistaken dish. We've been living here for a month and a half so it didn't come as a great surprise when we saw that they had decided to charge us for the more expensive meat dish they mistakenly gave Josh instead of the less expensive chicken dish he actually ordered. Luckily Bella noticed that the waitress had charged us for only 2 Pepsis when we actually had 3, so rather than make a scene (which I'm usually prepared to do) we just decided to call it a wash. I still think we should have said something.

We're going to have a farewell party for the students at Kolobok, this little restauranchik near our apartment, on Thursday, and I think most of the students will already be leaving St. Petersburg the next day. The only student who will be staying longer than us is Ryan, who will be here for another month if he can stand it. He was recently diagnosed with Giardia, and Bella said that when she last saw him he was looking pretty green around the gills. The doctor at the clinic gave him some medicine that's supposed to clear things up in about a week, so we're all thinking good thoughts for him and hoping he's up and around enough to enjoy the farewell party. I've had a terrible sore throat for the past few days myself, and Bella and most of the students have had minor ailments at one point or another during the trip. St. Petersburg isn't the healthiest environment to be in.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

More catching up:

Mischa's travels: In a previous post I mentioned that Bella's student Mischa had her parents visiting her from Germany, but I wanted to mention how impressive her performance as a tour guide was during their stay. Even though Mischa's family (her parents and younger brother) insisted on wearing matching outfits--complete with cellphones and cameras dangling from their necks--everywhere Mischa took them, after only one year of Russian, Mischa managed to take the whole family out to Tsarskoye Selo on the commuter train. She bought the tickets, managed to get everyone on the right train, got off at the right station, and then led the whole family all the way to the palace (the path is not particularly straightforward or well marked) and back home again with no major problems. Mischa's parents were pretty impressed, but I think they're not nearly as impressed as Bella and I are (I'm sure her parents don't realize just how difficult the Russians can be when they want to, and how arcane things in Russia generally are. There are always problems and unforeseen circumstances, and things that work perfectly today can easily be impossible tomorrow, with no explanation).

Galya and Sasha: So we had a nice long visit from Bella's cousin Galya from Perm, way out in the Urals, and while I was glad to have them for a visit, it was a little difficult for me because of my bad Russian. I actually ended up playing tour guide on Monday since Bella was in class, and I took Galya, Sasha, and Alison to Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where we saw the graves of lots of dead people. Of course, I was very happy to see Dostoevsky's grave (maybe happy is the wrong word here, but you get my meaning. We also saw the great Russian general Alexander Nevsky's tomb in the monastery, and the great Russian actor Cherkassov's tomb in the cemetery (Cherkassov played Nevsky in the movies). In all, it was a pretty dull trip, but the weather was nice and Alison found a caterpillar to play with, so it wasn't a complete waste. She also had her picture taken with several headstones (I told you she has a morbid streak), including Dostoevsky's and the artist Kuindzhe's. We went to a restaurant (the Acapulco Bar) claiming to serve Mexican food with them their last night in town, but I don't think a Mexican has ever been within 5 miles of there. The salsa was actually eggplant pasta sauce, and they used something resembling lima beans in their refried beans. Yum. Oh well. I tried speaking Spanish to the waitress, but she gave me a dumb stare, so I switched to Russian, and she just smiled nervously. Finally I just started pointing to stuff, and that seemed to work out okay. Sasha ordered a whiskey for some reason, but he ended up not liking it. Maybe he figured it was a Mexican drink. It was a very strange night overall.

Homestay filming: I finally managed to get out to film some of the homestays of the students (Shelley's and Paul and Scott's), and everyone seems to have settled in nicely during their time in Petersburg. Shelley's host mom and dad were at the dacha when I came to film, so I made Shelley show me the place on her own. She was even nice enough to pretend to be studying for the camera. Paul and Scott's host mom was at their apartment, and she was more than happy to ham it up for us, even treating us to a little piano music (she's a very talented pianist, but was pretty shy about performing). Paul brushed his teeth for the camera, making sure to use bottled water for the rinsing. Don't want any Giardia when wandering around Eastern Europe. Scott managed to steal the show, though, by eating a pelmeni with hot Russian mustard. The reaction on his face when the mustard finally registered on his tongue was priceless. It's definitely going in the final video. Well, maybe I'll save it for the director's cut.

If I get the chance, I'd like to film at least a couple more homestays before the students leave, but it all depends on how things work out. I can't believe the program will be over in just one more week. I'm pretty sure I'm happy about that, but I'm afraid that once I've been home for a few months and the adventure starts to fade, I'll actually want to come back at some point. I've already recognized the same peculiar reaction among several of the students. It's a love/hate relationship, and I warned them before they came here. Some of them will get back to the States, happy that they're still alive and never wanting to come back to Russia again. These are the sane ones. The others, like me, will have this itch they can't scratch, and they'll have to find some way to get back here. The Russians are always happy to oblige. They'll scratch you, kick you, fold, spindle, mutilate, you name it, they'll take care of it.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the Mariinsky Theater. We all went to see the opera Eugene Onegin the other day at the Mariinsky. It was beyond delightful. Alison was a little unhappy because there wasn't enough action, and because only one person dies, but everyone else was pretty impressed. The stage design was a little weird (all these big white cubes all over the place), and Bella noticed that in one of the scenes, Tatiana is wearing a white fur hat but Onegin spends half his aria singing about her stylish red beret. The opera was in Russian, of course, but there were supertitiles in English, so everyone could follow along pretty easily. Of course, there were some angry Russians in the audience who felt that the supertitiles should also be in Russian, since there might be some deaf old Russian lady in the audience who couldn't hear the opera (why a deaf person would come to the opera I don't know) but wanted to be able to follow the story. The Petersburgers are always eager to point out when they're being discriminated against. The only thing they hate more than each other is us.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Okay, so the upstairs neighbor has started playing her music again, so if this blog stops making sense at any point, I have a valid excuse. What to write about when there's too much to write about? I swear part of me is actually starting to be sad that there's only two weeks left in the trip. Okay, so I've already stopped making sense, but at least I still recognize the insanity of the sentiment. There was a big dog about the size of a bear on the bus the other day who gave a terrifying bark and scared the hell out of Bella when she tried to get on, but he was wearing a muzzle, so it was okay.

What I wanted to talk about this time, however, was the three apartment museums the group has been to this past week (oh, and I also wanted to mention Mischa and her parents a bit more. Remind me before I quit for the night that I need to mention Mischa. I think I also needed to mention some more about Galya, Bella's cousin, so remind me about that too).

The apartment museums: It's a Russian tradition to turn the apartments of their great writers into museums, and over the past week or so, the group had the pleasure (in some cases) of visiting the Dostoevsky Apartment museum, the Anna Akhmatova Apartment museum, and the (dare I utter the name?) Alexander Pushkin (dramatic pause) Apartment museum. Well, we had an English speaking guide at the Dostoevsky museum, and while her English wasn't the best, she was obviously in love with her subject matter and had a great sense of humor about the whole thing. She was pleased to show us the view from the window of his apartment (she told us he only rented corner apartments) where you could see a church, some pubs, and a beautiful neon sign advertising a sex shop (there are more sex shops than churches in Petersburg these days, and more pubs than churches and sex shops put together). Of course, there wouldn't have been a sex shop in Dostoevsky's time, but there certainly would have been prostitutes in the areas in which he could afford to live. After the tour, Bella had to ruin the beautiful symbolism for me by remembering that, according to the guide herself, Dostoevsky didn't actually live in the corner apartment in that particular building, but in the apartment next door. The museum had merely put a literary exhibit in the corner apartment. Dostoevsky wouldn't have been able to see either the church or the sex shop from his windows after all. Oh well, he was still able to write the Brothers Karamazov from that apartment, but maybe if he'd been in the corner apartment he might not have let Yul Brynner play Ivan in the movie. The guide herself was fantastic, and her broken English was charming. The next two apartment tours were with Russian speaking guides, which meant we had to listen to Bella's perfect English translations instead, so while there was more information communicated, there was less amusement from trying to figure out what the heck the guide was saying. Except Bella did at least do me the favor of once referring to the clock in Pushkin's apartment in the plural (if you don't know Russian, ignore this last comment). The Akhmatova museum tour was awful compared to the Dostoevsky one, but it was still interesting to see the difference between the two apartments. Everything about the Akhmatova tour was depressing and uncomfortable, from the Soviet style apartment and furnishings to the heat and tight spaces in the apartment, to the long-windedness of the overly enthusiastic and serious young guide/poetess. I guess the idea was to make the visitor feel as oppressed and claustrophobic as Akhmatova herself must have been. We even had lots of hangers-on glomming onto our tour (we started out with Bella, me, the kids, and 11 students, and by the end, there must have been 30 people all crowding into each of the tiny rooms pretending not to be listening to our tour), so we even got a little taste of communal-apartment life. Strangely, even though our young poetess/guide was reverentially telling us all about the tragedies Akhmatova had to deal with at the hands of the Soviet authoritarian state, she was wearing a CCCP t-shirt during the tour. I thought it was bad taste, but she must have thought it was campy or retro. I imagine it might be like taking a tour of Eli Wiesel's apartment in Germany with a tour guide wearing a swastika t-shirt. In the end, the guide apologized for not reciting some Akhmatova poetry (she understood how hard it would be for Bella to translate it on the spot), but after 3 hours of going through four tiny, overheated rooms as slowly as if we were trying to find a lost contact lens on the floor, I think it was in her best interest to skip the poetry anyway. Oh well. After Akhmatova's beautiful but tragic life and subsequent eternal apartment tour, we went to Pushkin's apartment, which I think we all liked pretty well. The tour guide was reverential, but funny (and concise) and even managed to speak slowly and simply enough so that I could understand most of what she was saying without Bella's very good translation. I hope the more advanced students also understood a lot. The tour was totally cool, and I even got choked up when we went into Pushkin's study and saw the actual portrait his teacher and friend Zhukovsky gave him when he graduated the Lyceum (Zhukovsky had famously signed it "from the conquered teacher to the victorious student"). It was a really nice tour. Probably the best thing about all three tours, though, was that we did them in such close proximity to each other that we were able to compare how these three great artists from three very different periods lived and worked. They lived within about a two mile radius of each other, but their lives and their times were so vastly different as if to be from different worlds entirely.

Okay, so I promised to write about Mischa and Galya, but I'm out of steam, so I'll try to get to it all tomorrow night. Apparently Bella's friend Andrei is on his way to see us on Friday, and we're still expecting visits from our friends Darin and Ura, so we may be very busy in the two weeks we have left.
It's been a while since I've been able to write, because our nights have been taken up visiting with Bella's cousin Galya and Galya's boyfriend Sasha, so here are some highlights and random thoughts of the past few days:

After returning from Moscow, we've been pretty busy. On July 4th, we had a nice Independence Day celebration, complete with hot dogs, hamburgers, and beer (lots and lots of beer), thanks to Tom, the William & Mary alum who owns the Shamrock Pub here in town. We had a great time on his little dock/open-air bar that he rents out right off of Nevsky Prospect. All the students were there and Tom was able to hang out with us, and a good time was had by all. I had a little too good of a time myself (I'm not used to drinking so much beer--I think it was around 5 liters worth), but even Bella indulged, with a liter and a half of the tasty Russian beer (we were there for 5 or 6 hours, so it wasn't as much as it sounds like). We couldn't get our hands on any fireworks, but Tom was nice enough to bring along a British friend for us to verbally abuse instead. In the end, we all made friends, and Patrick (one of the belligerents from the Moscow metro, you might recall) ended up sailing off into the sunset ('sunset' is a euphemism here. we haven't seen the sun even close to the horizon for over a month.) with Tom and his friend on Tom's beautiful boat. Thanks to Tom for a great time, and we hope to see him again before we leave. We have tentative plans to go for a boat ride, but we have to call him about that.

Peterhoff: We all went to Peterhoff last Saturday (including Bella's student Mischa's parents and her brother, who are here visiting from Germany) and even though we were majorly (I know that's not a word) hassled by the ticket sellers and guards, and even though they were all "We-Hate-Foreigners-But-You-Can-Pay-Ten-Times-Extra-Walk-Right-Into-the-Palace-and-Don't-Have-To-Wait-in-Line-With-All-the-Smelly-Pushy-Russians", and even though we were all "Well-Screw-You-We're-Just-Going-To-Visit-the-Free-Stuff", we still had a good time. We had to pay a lot as foreigners (they ignored our student passes, and didn't care if we were here studying for 5 years--we were foreigners, and that was that), and not only that, but...oh, screw it. I'm sick of complaining about it. I'm still angry but I'm also conflicted about the whole thing. I know that they need the money to restore the museums, and I know they're doing a good job restoring many of the places, and I know that many of the Russians who visit can't afford the ridiculously inflated fees they charge the foreigners, and I know that the foreigners who visit can usually afford to pay the higher fees even if it hurts a little bit, but in the end, the fact that the people in the tourism industry here target foreigners and see us as big fat pockets just waiting to be picked just really grates on me. It cost Mischa's parents 800 rubles to take the roundtrip boat to Peterhoff (Russian price: 360), then it cost them 280 rubles to get into the lower park (Russians: 50). Keep in mind that once you get off the boat, you have two options: pay the fee to get into the park, or wait at the dock and get on the next boat going back to Petersburg. Next, if they wanted to see any of the small palaces in the lower park, it would have cost them 100 rubles for each of the 3 mini-palaces (Russians: 20 rubles). Next, if they wanted to see the grand palace, it would have cost them 420 rubles, and seriously, they would just have walked right in. Meanwhile, the Russians have to wait in line and can only get in from 2:00 to 2:45 or from 4:00 to 4:45, but their tickets are 100 rubles. Finally, to add insult to injury, if you wanted to leave the lower park, and see the upper gardens or the town, or any of the cool little museums in the upper park, you couldn't get back into the lower park without paying another 280 rubles. New rules for this year, according to a particularly unhelpful and smug guard. In the end, Bella and I actually snuck around another side and found a sympathetic guard who was letting people back into the lower park (remember that you can only get back on the boat from the lower park, so it's pretty important to be able to get back), and we got to see a couple of the cool museums and the pretty church right outside the palace grounds, but most people never figure this out, or have enough skill at Russian to even try. One of the museums we saw was a great little place with all these private collections of art, books, china, etc., There were original watercolors and even some oils by famous Russian artists who you've never heard of, but trust me, they're famous. Of course, since nobody knows how to get to the upper park, we were literally the only ones in the museum besudes the babushkas, who would turn on the lights when we entered a room and turn them all off when we left (there was still one or two babushki per room, so I suppose they just sat there in the dark before we got there and then again after we left). The other museum we saw was a cool little hall with the bicycles of the Tsars, which we all thoroughly enjoyed.

Speaking of bicycles, by the way, seems like a perfect segue into another little random observation: Bikers on the sidewalks are probably the biggest unexpected hazard we've had to deal with so far in St. Petersburg. While we expected cars on the sidewalks and cops making random document checks, and maybe even gypsies and pickpockets on the bus, the one new daily problem is these small gangs of teenage bicyclists treating the sidewalks of Petersburg like their own personal motocross tracks. It's especially nerve-wracking when I've got Alison by the hand, I'm trying to keep an eye on Josh, another eye on the dog poop, and I'm holding today's groceries, and here come five kids on bikes, zigzagging wildly through pedestrian traffic. I've seen more than one accident involving a bike rider and a pedestrian, and of course they don't wear helmets, nor do they bike on the street.

I can see there's just too much to write about for one blog entry, so I'll post this one as is, and keep working on the rest of it tonight. The upstairs neighbor hasn't started playing the sousaphone yet (she had a big fat opera singer over to practice breaking glass this afternoon, which sent me screaming from the apartment), so maybe I'll keep my sanity a while longer.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Okay, so here's what happened to SOME of the students in Moscow that almost got them thrown in the clink. A group of them were coming back to the hotel that evening and a couple of knucklescraping, pre-pubescent teens in uniform asked Patrick for his documents. Well, according to Patrick, they also were mean to him. Patrick, being all young and Irish, decided that enough was enough, and Russia wasn't going to push him around anymore. Bad timing. When the babushka at the Hermitage yells at you for standing too close to the open window, that's a good time to snap. When the ticket taker on the bus throws the money back at you because you don't have exact change, that's another good time. Bad time to snap is when a pimple-faced boy in uniform with more power than he can handle tries to assert his manhood by insisting to see your passport. Now, the story here gets a little muddled, especially since I heard several versions. The first version was told to me in a group that same night after the participants had had a little vodka to still their nerves, while the second version was told to Bella the next morning, first by Patrick, then by Ryan, who was a major participant, as you may have guessed. Okay, so here's my version, which is neither better nor worse than either of the several versions I heard, but since it's the one that's written down, it's the one that will have to serve as the truth. God damn it, I can't hear myself think. The woman upstairs is playing the pedal-enhanced xylophone again, so it must be midnight. Oh, no. Actually, it's only 11:00pm, so maybe she'll quit before 2:00am tonight. It might not be so bad, but she plays the same damn piece every fricking night, over and over and over again. I'll press on for the sake of posterity. So back to Patrick, who is fed up with the various hassles and cultural friction, and who has decided that he's mad as hell, and he's not gonna take it anymore (for you young whippersnappers out there, this is a classic line from the film "Network"). So after the cop, who is younger and shorter and weaker than Patrick, just to give you a testosterone-level perspective, asks to see Patrick's passport and other documents, Patrick at some point asks, "Pochemu?" (why?) in what is probably a defiant tone, but I can't say for sure. Besides, "pochemu" is rarely a good thing to say to a pimple-faced Russian cop, since there is no good answer to that question, because there is no reason behind the request. What is he going to say? "I need to check your passport to give you a hard time and so that I can feel more like a real man?" That may be the truth, but it ain't gonna happen. Instead, what the cop is going to say is: "Pochemu, pochemu!" (rough translation: "Screw you. Show me the passport, you halfwit."). Which is indeed exactly what the cop says. After a little more hassle, the smaller of the two cops apparently begins hovering very close to Patrick, eager to start swinging his billyclub. Just to give you another testosterone reading, Patrick later related to me that he wanted the cop to try something, because he could easily have kicked the cop's butt. Ryan, who is about to enter the story, concurred, and also mentioned his desire to get into a fight with the cops. Of course, beating up two cops in the Moscow metro is easily defensible by whining, "They started it!" Luckily for everyone, the small cop kept his hands to himself, and neither Ryan nor Patrick nor the rest of the group who was with them had to spend the night in Lubyanka prison, where they would have been beaten to a pulp by guards who would not have been quite so small or quite so young as these two cops we're presently dealing with. So the cop who was actually speaking to them (not the little blonde guy orbiting them, waiting to sink his little molars into their shins), told them they had no right to be in Moscow and they'd be deported if they didn't come up with some answers. He wanted to know where the group leader was (this is a ridiculous request, since the group leader doesn't have to be with them anyway), at which point he apparently asked Ryan, who is, sadly, losing some of his hair and may look a little more mature than the rest of the group, if he was the group leader, at which point Ryan answered, "Da, konyeshno" ("yeah, of course I am"). It took the cop all of fifteen seconds questioning Ryan to figure out he wasn't the group leader, and now the students had the extra problem of trying to explain why they're now lying about their identities to officers of the law. After some more questioning, which is interrupted every thirty seconds when a metro comes through the station (at this point, the metro is so loud that the cops and the students just have to stand there stupidly looking back and forth at each other, waiting for the noise to subside), Patrick decides to tell the cops that he thinks the whole thing is "bullshit" (well, he says it in Russian so the cops get the full meaning. Good to see our 2nd year students have such a large and colorful vocabulary). The cops don't like this at all, and by this point, Shelley and one of the other girls, who had apparently gone off to buy a telephone card to call Bella, have come back, unsuccessful in their attempts to reach her, so since everyone is just standing there now, the cops decide they might as well threaten to take everyone down to the police station. Ryan then demands to go to the American Embassy, which totally throws the cops for a loop, and the big one tells the little one to go and get the police car. Now, these two are so young they probably can't even drive, and there's no way the police department is gonna trust either of these bozos with a gun, much less an actual vehicle, so the chances of them being able to bring all 8 students to the police station is slim at best. So Patrick shouts, in Russian (he does the William & Mary program proud!), "What do you want? A bribe?!?" And the cop who hasn't gone off to get the imaginary car freaks out, "No, no, no bribe! no!" Well, things slowly start to burn themselves out, and when everyone has run out of adrenaline and testosterone, and all that's left is a bunch of dumb guys staring back at each other, the more rational of the cops finally hands them back their documents and sends them on their way with a few apologies and a great story for them to tell back home.

So that's the end of the story of the near-prison experience in Moscow, although in reality, there was almost no chance of them ending up in jail that night short of them actually having gotten into a fistfight with the cops. The rest of the trip was uneventful enough, but a few things worth mentioning are our wonderful trip to Mama Zoya's Georgian Restaurant for dinner our last evening in town, and the walk through the beautiful sculpture garden outside the New Tretyakov Gallery after dinner. I think I finally managed to convince a few students that my ravings about Georgian food were not a lot of hot air. Of all the reasons to make the trip to Russia, eating at Mama Zoya's is certainly at the top of my list. I haven't seen so many of the students so happy for so long as I did that night at Mama Zoya's. Anyway, I'll end it here, with our bellies full of tasty Georgian delicacies and our heads light with cold Russian beer. Oh, and Ryan and I bought out all the cold pineapple Fanta from the kiosk in front of Gorky Park to quench the thirst we had developed from eating the salty and oh, so tasty khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread). I can still taste it now.

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