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.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Russian Riddles

Question: What is long, green, and smells like sausage?

Answer: The Electrichka.

While definitely long and green, I did not find the local electric train that I took from Novgorod to Saint Petersburg to be noticeably more or less odorously porcine than any other Russian train. I left Novgorod early in the morning, on the northbound electric commuter train headed to Saint Petersburg.

(the station in Novgorod)

Arriving at a time that for me was uncharacteristically early* I sauntered up to the ticket window to casually mumble a series of demands at the clerk. She seemed to be very rushed and flustered, as was the centuries old babushka behind me, who began shouting and gesturing about my apparent sloth-like pace. Wanting to protect my leisurely ticket-buying moment, I shouted back about clocks and times and "ye plokha govaryoo pa Russky**" and she retaliated with a repeated chanting of "Bostra Bostra Bostra***" as she shoved my ticket in my hand and pushed me out the door, across the tracks, and onto the dated electric train. Annoyed and asking myself why such a tiny raisin of a woman would want to terrorize me so, I had been safely boardec for approximately three seconds later the train lurched into motion. So I yet again must admit I barely made my train, though I felt little to know stress about it because I had no idea. Thank you, little babushka, wherever you are.

Electrichkas are an important piece of Soviet and post-Soviet history, and are still widely used today because of their economy and prevalence throughout the country. Since their inaugural ride in 1926, the system has expanded to over 4000 different routes administered by Russian Railways alone, and their prevalence accounts for them showing up periodically in modern poetry, literature, film, and even rock music. They are sometimes referred to as "wild dog trains" because poor vagrant populations have been known to ride for extremely cheap or even free, connecting five local lines, all the way from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. I was pleased to experience the light, aging train for one leg of my journey, but as the approximately 100 miles from Novgorod to SP took over four hours, I can only assume that the 450 to Moscow would be a bit tedious at best. the ideea of a free ticket becomes slightly less enticing in that light.

During the early morning ride I was entertained by various stimuli, and was happy to get an intimate look at the lives of rural Russian people on trapped on wooden benches a snakelike vehicle chugging though the pale countryside. I watched an elderly couple eat a full meal on disposable plastic dining ware that they then carefully cleaned and placed back in their picnic baskets for later use, pleasing me greatly. I listened to a mother teaching a young boy the names for colors and simple landmarks, and I was amazed to realize that their conversation was almost verbatim of a typical Rosetta stone lesson.**** I finished Chekhov's short play, Ivanov, which is by far the most humorous work I have ever read*****, sipped countless cups of black tea, and gnawed on some confusing Russian tea crackers that were shaped like 'O's, textured like rocks, and tasted like dust. A very pleasing morning it was, to be sure.

I arrived at midday at the bustling Moskavskiy Voskal eager to experience the city that is called Petrograd, Leningrad, The Venice of the North, the Northern Capital, or just Piti, depending on who you ask and where your loyalties lie.

(Welcome to Piti, my friends!)


*Ten minutes before the train was due to leave the station.

**My favorite and most used Russian phrase; roughly, "My Russian is very bad."

***I found out later that this word means "rush" or "hurry." There is no better way to learn new vocabulary than to have it shouted repeatedly at you while being attacked in a foreign country in the small hours of the morning.

****After only eight lessons I could almost communicate like a three year old! Really!

*****That ends in the suicide of the protagonist.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Importance of Being Foreign

A gas station in the distance gave me hope, and I entered saying hopefully,


Friendly laughter on the part of the clerk assured me that I had no such luck, so I embarked on a linguistic journey that sounded something like,

"Please... We is, where? I want... Novgorod, please? Bus 7, Novgorod?"

She started to respond when a man holding a large bottle of beer in one hand and a matching bottle of vodka in the other looked over at the proceedings and said,

"You- Novgorod? I..." and he finished his sentence by miming the international gesture for reckless drunk driving. My response of, "Da! Da! Novgorod!" settled the issue and the clerk smiled happily at us, pleased to have been the broker of such a quick solution to my hopeless lack of direction and the man's apparent acute boredom and vast excess of spare time.

We hopped into his large American SUV and headed in a direction that I did not think would lead us to Novgorod, but moments later I proved to be delightfully mistaken as it materialized in the distance. Meanwhile, the man used gestures, Russian, German, and English* to piece together some information about his life and mine, while calling everyone he knew to announce that he had rescued a poor American girl from certain death in a swampy graveyard in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, he thrust his phone at me, and I found myself speaking with a 16-year-old student of the English language who was desperate to meet me, and inviting me on a walk through the park. Of course I had to accept, and we promenaded through the Kremlin, chatting about his life and studies, as his whole family and social circle called him and he explained his great luck as well. Suddenly his girlfriend and another girl showed up to verify my existence, and we adjourned to have tea and blinis in a little cafe. The young people explained that they had never met a native English speaker, and were desperate to practice with someone such as myself, as there was only one English teacher in the town who had ever even set foot in a visited an Anglophone nation. I felt like I was magical.

One issue that that they were very candid in discussing with me was the lack of proper access to English education in their region. The other was my use of knee-high gold stockings, which one girl scathingly described as "in Russia, you are like, very... freak." This explained why for the past week when any Russian women of any age had seen me on the street they had been pointing at my feet, whispering to each other, then, more likely than not, breaking out in barely disguised dirisive laughter.

(My Russian Youth Fan Club and I in front of Lenin in the town square. They are not actually giants, I am just a terribly awkward photo taker.)

Already it was near 11pm, and the sun was setting, so my friends and I posed for a photo in front of Lenin and parted ways, they back to their suburb and myself to have a nightcap of honey and black pepper infused vodka** at a cute, friendly cafe with the cute and friendly name of Nice People. If you visit Novgorod and do not want to learn Russian or eat only things you can point at, I highly recommend this place, which has the most adorable slogan of, "It's easy to find Nice People in Novgorod."***

So true.


*In that order of fluency and coherence.

**A local specialty, according to the waitress, which made my eyes water and pleased me greatly.

***I would patronize them again merely for how clever their marketing is!