Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cape Codding

Recently my most cherished and beloved benefactor offered me a seat on a train from Washington, DC to Providence, RI, where a car would await us and take us to a frontier that in all of my American wanderings I had still not reached. This place, the stuff of American fairy tales, is Cape Cod. I feel like a true Gilded Age holiday-goer. Rails could only take us so far into the wilderness before we had to rely on a less savory yet undeniably more nimble mode of transit: a newfangled and certain to be short-lived atrocity called an automobile. At Land's End, even that machine would prove obsolete, and we would have to proceed by foot to visit century-old lighthouses and dip toes in the chilly Atlantic. I won't be posting a proper narrative here yet, but I invite you to follow the trip this weekend on Twitter @lisamarkuson using #ChampagneProblems and #CapeCod.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Red Arrows and Moscow Mules

With the Russo-ferro-historic adventure I had just had, I was ready for one last epic Russian train experience to end my trip, and so I sought it out and caught it and refused to let it escape my clutches. If I didn't have time to do the entire Trans-Siberian, I would at least partake in some form of transit steeped in Russian tradition and history. What kind of history, you ask? Read on, Dear Reader, and see.

Every night at 11:55 the Krasney Strela* departs from St. Petersburg, headed to Moscow on an eight hour overnight trip. If you are wondering why the train leaves at such a specific time (why not round up to midnight?) you are very perceptive and hopefully a healthy cynic. Like most aspects of Soviet life, it was not planned by a mere coincidence. During the days of yore when Soviet bureaucrats would often travel between the two cities, they scheduled this luxury train service to shuttle them back and forth, leaving just before the official end of each day so that they could justify paying themselves for an extra day's work. The train is encrusted in the trappings of Soviet refinement and hypocrisy; red velvet is draped over most surfaces, red silk curtains frame each window, and silver and gold embroidery remind passengers more times than necessary exactly what train in which one currently has the pleasure of sitting. As the train pulls away from the station each night, speakers tucked high in the rafters of the cavernous station play a pompous ditty composed to be the theme song of this self-important vehicle, an embodiment of one of the major reasons that the Soviet system collapsed**.

It was glorious.

(exhibit A)

Before my departure I somehow stumbled upon a Couchsurfing party of students and travelers from over a dozen countries, where, using mysterious powers of persuasion, I convinced a representative of each country to sing their homeland's national anthem.*** My internal clock seemed to sense the importance of timeliness in this moment, however, and I left the party with more than the proper amount of time to get to the station, and arrived there composed, ticket in hand, and even found my track number without a hitch. I cannot recommend enough the revolutionary idea of arriving at the station more than 15 seconds before you are meant to depart. Really.

I was magnanimously escorted to my compartment,**** where I settled in to sip a canned Russian beverage blending black currant juice and champagne. I was told afterward that this is a drink that no one over the age of eleven would embarrass themselves to be seen drinking in that country, but it proved to be a delectable beverage of the highest quality, so I have no regrets! The theme song played, the wheels groaned into motion, and just as I thought I would spend a quiet night sweeping through the Russian countryside, being carried forward in time and space with nary a disturbance or distraction, a loud thump resounded in the hallway and the pocket door swung open violently, revealing a dark, swaying silhouette.

Startled, I took stock of the situation. The figure was a man, obviously intoxicated, and he gripped the door frame with white-knuckled determination. From the looks of him, he seemed to be a wealthy Russian businessman who had been booted from an swanky bar after ten or twelve too many overpriced vodkas. He attempted to speak to me in Russian, but before I could offer up one of my well-practiced survival responses, he lurched sideways and collapsed onto the nearest bunk, luckily unoccupied, and left the conscious world.

Thus alone again, I returned to my libation and writing, and settled in for the night, my last in the Russian Federation.


*Russian for "Red Arrow," which I have on good authority is the most politically charged train moniker in history.

**In my humble, biased, and shockingly unqualified-to-make-such-sweeping-statements opinion.

***Speaking of which, America, the optimism and glory of your national anthem is SO impressive when compared to those of many small European countries, whose anthems I assume must have been composed by lesser-known monks and hurdy-gurdyists during the black plague or some other time of severe internal strife.

****A second class, four-person cabin with sofas that were converted by agile attendants into beds that were made of the Russian equivalent of goose down, marshmallows, cumulus nimbus clouds, and the wings of cherubs.

Monday, September 19, 2011


The following evening I finally got to drink Russian vodka in the traditional regional style. Room temperature, straight up, in shot glasses, with lemon, apparently, and in staggering quantities, as per the helpful direction of my hosts. I managed to keep a steady pace along side them Pleased with how I was progressing, but ever conscious of my health and well being, they encouraged me to follow their example by periodically eating little open-faced sandwiches with cheese and tomato to absorb some of the fiery beverage's effects. This is an important step that most young Americans seem to forget during their forays into the world of distilled libations in tiny cups.

With their friends at the rockabilly club just a few blocks away, I became a bit of a celebrity, and the vodka-misted fifteen minutes of fame was really too much for my sensitive ego- by the end of the night* I had large groups of Russian people toasting to my long life and happiness, and explaining to me why my presence in their country gave them hope for the future of life on earth. Vodka, the thing that Russia is probably best known for, had exceeded all of my expectations! It was a good day to be me.

Prying my eyelids away from each other and swinging about the leaden appendages that used to be arms, legs, and a cranium the next day, however, was another story.

But I would not be thwarted by a hangover that rivaled the unique sensation of being hacked into six pieces with a rusty axe, because the coming day would be my last day of proper sightseeing in not only the city, but the whole country. Of course, for a young lady such as myself, the only proper attraction with which to close my Russian peregrinations would be nothing less than the "Центральный музей железнодорожного транспорта РФ."** this was not just any typical railway museum, this was advertised as the second biggest shrine to railway transit in the world. The lying, callous sadists at billed it as such:

This is undoubtedly the country's best museum concerned with railways and charts the complete development of railways in Russia and the former USSR, from the very first Russian steam locomotive, built by the father and son Cherepanov team, to the modern railways and engines of today. The museum boasts some incredibly detailed models, most notably one of a cargo station with railway cars going up and down a hill.

The Railway Museum also owns a collection of old locomotives and cars, which is displayed at a separate location, just outside St. Petersburg (from the Vitebsk Railway Station take a local train to Parovozny Muzei).

Address: 50, Sadovaya Ulitsa, 190068
Metro: Sennaya Ploschad/Sadovaya
Tel:        +7 (812) 315-1476
Open: Sunday to Thursday, 11 am to 5:30 pm
Closed: Friday, Saturday and the last Thursday of the month

I showed up on its doorstep, at the proper time and date, probably the single most overly-excited tourist on within a kilometer of Sadovaya metro station, to find a large steel lock holding fast the doors of a disintegrating, apparently abandoned building with no signs of human use in the past decade or so. I was not amused, as you can tell.

(You may have win the battle, Russia, but you will not win the war.)

Luckily, things move fast in my microcosm, and as I had planned to meet up with some other couch surfers to witness the wonders of the "museum," and when I found them, one of them informed us of another locale where historic Russian trains were kept! Not even Russia itself could keep me from seeing the Russian things that I was determined to see.

We drove to an old station on the other side of town, which had been converted and redeveloped into a stylish shopping mall and entertainment center. I was very pleased by this, especially when I saw the huge flock of antique cars and engines parked behind the structure, as if they had gotten into formation in preparation for my visit. I posed with some small children on top of a locomotive from the early twentieth century, which was great fun, and embarrassed everyone involved, myself excluded.

(Tiny Russian child, well trained in the art of torturing foreigners, prepares to pounce on idiotic American pathological blogger)

By far the most exciting was the car that had been outfitted to be able to not only store nuclear missiles for transit, but also launch them directly from the tracks.

(Makes American Railroad barons look like gentle shepherds who had your best interest at heart. iPad users, tilt device to view in proper direction.)

Afterward, I finally found some beautiful tiny butterflies to buy, in the weirdest little floral shop I have ever seen. It felt like a scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but dubbed into another language and much, much creepier. I stopped briefly at a couch surfing party on Nevsky Prospekt Street with just enough time to drink one more delicious Russian beer and coerce every attendee to sing their respective national anthem*** before running to the train station to catch the 11:55pm Krasney Strela.


*And by "end of the night" I mean 6am, which in any other time and place I am relatively certain is morning.

**Or if you can't read Cyrillic, which I am now convinced most Russian cab drivers cannot, The Central Railway Museum.

***We were over fifteen countries represented, so this was no trivial feat, let me tell you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland to 18th Century Monastery

Twenty minutes later, smoldering piles of garbage, heaps of junk metal, and scrawny vegetation gave way again to a deeper forest, which then emerged into a vast gray landscape, flat on all sides. Power lines strung along the track were followed by a broad and poorly paved highway, with low gray structures crouching along either side of our route, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting foreign trolley passenger who made the mistake of traveling so far away from the safety of the city center. I could see nothing but sadness and desolation stretching interminably toward the horizon. Another quarter of an hour passed, and most of my companions drifted toward their respective destinations, leaving only the most melancholic and fatalistic of us on the clattering car.

It was time to take my life back into my own hands, and alight from the obviously doomed vehicle, come what may.

(Am I being too dramatic?)

I yanked the rusty chain and the trolley shuddered to a halt in the middle of an intersection, between a vacant lot, a blown out apartment building, and a gas station where one hunched man stood cynically next to a pump, looking at it as though he was almost totally convinced that no gas would come out were he to try the button.

Ah, my stop!

I half expected a pack of rabid dogs to emerge from an uncapped sewer to maul me on the spot, but I tentatively stepped onto the gravel and remained miraculously intact. The trolley groaned back into locomotion and moved slowly away from me, and I am convinced I heard someone snicker maliciously as it did so. The old gas station patron watched me, unimpressed, and a truck of indeterminate age and functionality drove slowly past, its driver glaring in my direction. I considered walking away, but thought better of allowing the tracks* out of my sight. I stayed put, convinced that complete stillness would protect me from a crazed Russian mobster's senseless wrath, until I saw a dark shape on the horizon. I could hear it before I could recognize it visually, but I knew what it was, and my heart leapt with a joy that could not be compared to anything but the feeling that damsels must have when they are tied to railroad tracks and Dudley Doright appears.

What did the trolley say? Where was it going? All I knew was that it was away from The Nothing and toward what I hoped would prove to be Saint Petersburg or any other populated civilian center.

Maybe it was just my overwhelming sense of relief, but I swear that the ride back was shorter, the weather was sunnier, and my fellow passengers were some of the loveliest and most lighthearted Russians I have ever shared transit with. Perhaps they had all narrowly avoided the Russian equivalent of the Grim Reaper** as well.

To celebrate my survival I went directly to Alexander Nevsky monastery to pay my respects to the patron saint of Piti and thank him for sparing my tiny insignificant life. One of my alltime favorite Tsars, Peter the Great, built the complex in 1710 in honor of a battle that took place in a totally different location. It is surrounded on all sides by a river and canals, and has a gorgeous garden, necropolis, and extremely clean public restrooms inside.

(That is more like it)

Truly a fabulous place to eat three or for mayonnaise salads and reflect on near-death experiences. I made the mistake, however, of trying to walk around outside the protective wall after my exploration of the grounds, throwing myself into a situation confronting speeding cars, evil-looking auto dumps, collapsing industrial buildings, and an undeniable lack of any sort of navigable pedestrian embankment. The city certainly has its less picturesque aspects, and I seem to have a knack for finding them.

That night, after an evening of the most gracious Russian hospitality I could dream of, I was invited to take my understanding of Russian nightlife to a whole new level at a real live Russian rockabilly bar, where being American would finally work to my advantage***!


*That would potentially lead me back to civilization?

**Known in Russian as "The Very Grim Reaper."

***I think.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Curiosity and Danger on the Outskirts of Piti: Not Even Lenin Can Save Me Now

I sent the morning wandering in the neighborhood on Petrogradskaya Island in a vain search for two elusive vintage stores. While they proved to be nonexistent, I found many other intriguing specimens during while on the hunt. I took the metro* for the first time, and upon leaving I almost immediately stumbled upon a nearly hidden bookstore that felt like it was the entrance to a wormhole leading to some more serious, literary past. Beyond stacks of Russian books that obviously had no meaning to me was a little cafe nestled amongst a forest of hanging and potted plants. Scratchy jazz wafted toward me from an unknown source, and elderly Russian intelligentsia types sat around tiny round tables muttering in low tones to each other. A younger generation of bibliophiles had propped laptops amongst their thick volumes and notes, and conducted very important sounding conversations. The aged proprietress, wrapped in a shawl, told me that the meal was only for her librarian staff, but that she could give me an espresso and a slice of freshly baked cake if I wanted. This pleased me greatly, so I sat and happily enjoyed a warm apple lemon coffee cake with black current sauce while poring over small prints by contemporary Russian artists, vintage photographs, and Russian cartoons. I selected some pen and ink drawings, a sketch of a hedgehog, some Victorian children's portraits, and old propaganda posters** and tucked them away, feeling like I had stumbled upon a priceless treasure trove and been told to take a handful of my favorite gems.

Wile wandering the neighborhood I also found a tiny sewing and craft store filled from floor to ceiling with buttons, zippers, and ribbons, with a sour old woman perched on a stool guarding her wares. I was the only other person in the shop, and her beady glare assured me that any sudden movement on my part would most certainly spell my doom. I also found more beautiful hand painted signs, such as this one.

(I promise you that a garage door so cute as this does not exist anywhere in the US)

Finally even my dogged optimism failed and I accepted that I would not be purchasing any second hand Soviet fashions that day, so I settled on another form of entertainment: buying many more salads with the highest mayonnaise to other ingredients ratio as possible. Armed with three saucy dishes, I wandered down a cobbled street in search of a friendly outdoor eating area. Suddenly, around a corner came an adorable little antique tram.

(A streetcar named desire?)

I was overcome with an uncontrollable desire to ride this tram to it's mysterious destination, so I hopped on. It seemed like a fantastic way to have a little adventure and see an unknown part of the city, with a built in escape plan in the form of a railroad track leading back to the city center. After crossing a canal, the tram rumbled happily along the sunny streets, slowly passing Piti's northern train station, Finlandskaya***. It slowly passed pedestrian filled squares, and manicured parks. I felt very good about my spur-of-the-moment decision. 

Until the route changed.

After a sharp left turn my little tram plunged into a wild, overgrown forested area that looked like it had at one point been Soviet car factory, then a junk yard, finally being reclaimed by the elements. Among scraggly trees and half buried car parts, gypsy camps had sprouted and clusters of steely-eyed young men sat around smoldering campfires smoking rolled cigarettes and staring at the tram. They looked resentful of the disturbance we caused them, and as though they wouldn't bat an eye at the proposition of taking over the tram, holding us ransom, and becoming the self-righteous villains in a slow moving yet terrifying revolutionary film.

I put my iPad away.


*Ten times more user-friendly than Moscow's, with helpful hints and pleasant greetings posted all over the modern and well-lit stations, in Russian and - gasp! - English. Plus fares are paid with brass tokens, which I find very quaint.

**Some of which I have framed and have become part of my growing wall of tribute to global kitsch, or "glitsch." Please spread this term, as the new globalized hipster buzzword. Many thanks.

***Finlandskaya station is the historic location where Lenin gave his first speech upon returning to Russia from seventeen years in exile, speaking to his supporters en masse from the roof of his armored train car. A very exciting moment in Russian train history to be sure.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lost in the Hermitage

Back in Russia...

When the sun doesn't set until 4am, and rises at 6, one's sleep patterns inevitably become a bit skewed. I awoke, disoriented, after having slept a few hours on another shockingly firm Russian mattress. These Russian mattresses, I tell you, they are not cushions so much as artfully crafted sacks of plywood with rocks and sand placed in them at perfect positions to bruise your spleen and squeeze out your spinal fluid as you fitfully toss and turn. Luckily, I had no desire to sleep in, as I had the Hermitage on the horizon.

(A prohibited snapshot of the interior!)

The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great* and is a huge complex of stately buildings, the four most prominent being the Winter Palace and its three cohorts apparently not worth their own names, the Old, New, and Small Hermitages. It is the largest museum on earth. Entering the complex after awkwardly stringing my bicycle to a solitary royal fence from where I was more than half-sure it would no longer be when I returned, I was struck by four things in particular:


2. The enormous scale of every aspect of the space. I felt like tiny Alice in an austere Tsarist Wonderland wandering the cavernous halls.

3. The opulence, and its political connotations and historic significance. The wealth and luxury were stunning- most of the doorknobs were golden talons holding giant rubies- but more so was the realization that this extreme concentration of wealth was the reason that the Russian people finally lost it in the October Revolution of 1917. I stood in one room where every surface seemed to be encrusted in gold, and reading an informative plaque I found out that it was the room that the oligarchy had sat in to eat their last meal before the palace was stormed moments later.

4. The absolute impossibility of navigating the labyrinth via the free "maps" one is given with entry. Inexplicably sponsored by Korean Air, I attempted time and again to get my bearings by looking at the large brochure with its high-quality printing and full color depictions, but it was all a cruel guise to lull me into a false sense of security. I became so utterly lost at one point toward the end of my visit that I seriously considering setting up camp and waiting for a guard to escort me back out.

Three of my favorite treasures from the museum were thus:

1. A small oil painting of what was apparently the first Russian hipster, complete with pompadour, tiny mustache, tight breeches, and various shiny and ostensibly useless accessories adorning his person,

2. An ancient Armenian artifact of what looked like small clay links, labelled in English as "snaffle bits,"

3. An enormous and unbelievable golden clock that consists of an entire forest scene, with a peacock in the middle.

The picture is good, but this video shows some of the unbelievable details. The really amazing thing is that the British gentleman who designed the clock sent it to the palace completely disassembled and with no instructions whatsoever, and it took the royal clockmaker nine years to figure it out. Well worth the effort, if you ask me, and so shiny.

After seeing these and approximately 10,000,000 other wonders of human creation, I was starving and very ready to find a curious Russian snack outside of the museum, but spent another hour trying to find an escape, becoming increasingly desperate until I finally nearly sprinted through about a mile of Egyptian antiquities to the main hall, which at that point I could only dimly recognize, the hour of my arrival being so long ago.

I celebrated the conquest of the Hermitage with a delicious and scandalously inexpensive cabbage and mushroom pie at the most adorable Russian pie shop in the history of the confection. I can't for the life of me recall its name**, but I can tell you that it was along a canal in Nevsky Prospekt, had two floors, and had a very friendly wooden cat as its mascot. Do yourself a favor and find it when you are there, and get the most pie for your 45 cents.


*I am fairly certain she chose that name herself.

**Even with the power of google, apparently "pie shop wooden cat delicious" is not enough to be able to suss it out of the interweb. I am ashamed as well because I should have memorized it by now, as I ate its wares at least three times, maybe more. Okay, okay, definitely more.

Friday, July 15, 2011

White Nights in the City Where Everyone Goes Crazy

My Russian hosts in Saint Petersburg told me that their city is famous for being one which drives people to insanity. The home of Dostoevsky* is here, an 18th century Orthodox saint from the region was called "crazy Xenia" by all who knew her, and when I googled "crazy people from Saint Petersburg" I found a song by a sad looking woman called Elizabeth White which has lyrics that definitely prove this theory. They say it is because of the gray and rainy weather, which I got a healthy dose of during my time there. As far as I know I managed to avoid losing my mind in the four days that I spent in Russia's most loved city.

Because of extreme northern position of Piti** on "the globe," during January and June there are extreme shortages and/or surpluses of sunlight, with corresponding pinnacles of the longest night and day of the year opposite each other on the calendar. For the winter months, this means dismal days where the sun rises at 10:30am, barely struggles over the horizon, and dips below the North Sea again by 3pm. There is nothing to do but drink vodka, mope, and write melancholic music. During the summer, the sun rises at 4am and one can enjoy a noon-like sun exposure until about midnight, when the sun starts its slow descent to skim the earth before shooting boldly into the air again. This means little sleep, long, leisurely outdoor adventures, and an overwhelming sense of optimism***.

Even with all of my technical sidekicks I still had a devil of a time finding the home of Sasha and Mischa, a fraternal duo mastering the Russian music scene by publicizing new bands, Djing, and producing their own original music. Lucking, once I did, I was highly impressed by their gorgeous flat in a monumental centuries-old building overlooking the canal in Nevsky Prospekt. I was warmly welcomed and immediately given a tour of the tiny vintage haunts around town, as well as through a historic and infamous arts collective called Pushkinskaya 10, complete with art galleries and studios, a dive bar, a record store, a school, and a secret tiny cafe in the top of a tower.

(of course, the only pictures I took were of adorable signs like this one)

(and this one)

(and also this one)

We then procured a bicycle for me, and began an epic cycling tour of the entire city, which took us through the long streets lined with marble Italianate mansions, Roman amphitheatres, hundreds of opera houses and theatres, over tiny islands, by onion-domed cathedrals, through manicured parks and dark forests, and even past a blue marble mosque. At one point we stopped briefly at an outrageously overpriced, still-under-construction nightclub in a forest, where our bicycle gang rode angrily away when we found out that a drink at the half-built bar would be more expensive than any drink I had ever purchased. We ended on the coast, looking toward, I assume, the North Pole, and drinking the only beer I apparently will try, Kozel Cerny.

It was 2am, and twilight was finally setting in.


*And his most famous protagonist, Raskolnikov, also called the city home. However, there are heated disputes as to which homes each figure actually or hypothetically dwelled in. The place where he died has been made into a museum that is essentially a dark and depressing Dostoevskyland.

**As it shall henceforth be known.

***Luckily, vodka consumption levels remain constant at this time.