… that I really am travelling will be available soon, but I’m having trouble with my computer/internet and so will take a couple of days.
May 30, 2012
My flight from Toronto to Frankfurt was surprisingly decent, given that I gave up counting after 8 babies and children sat nearby, there was a couple both with hacking coughs across the aisle, and next to me a guy who took both armrests. He must have thought he could get deep-vein thrombosis in his arms, because he kept lifting and wriggling his arms. I dropped off for a couple of 20 minute stretches in between his calisthenics, largely due to all the alcohol Lufthansa kept pushing on me. Scotch, wine, cognac – I appreciate German hospitality.
The layover in Frankfurt airport was spent trying to stay awake, to buy lunch with my supposedly international but in reality non-functioning debit card, and admiring all the Germans. They’re a big people. The flight from Frankfurt to St. Petersburg, the fatigue caught up to me and I fell asleep over my dinner tray, the brilliant, above-cloud sunshine shining full on my face. I didn’t even hear my seatmate remove the tray for the steward’s cart; I woke up and it was gone.
I’m travelling to Russia on a business visa, so as to stay longer than the month-long tourist visa. I invented a story about travelling to an academic conference in Moscow and spent the flight memorizing the conference details and my backstory (I’m a post-doctoral research fellow observing the conference for my department – hey, I dream big). The St. Petersburg Airport is dirty and crowded; I waited 45 minutes in a smallish hall, defending my spot in line from a guy behind me who kept trying to move up – and then had the cheek to complain when someone did it to him. I got anxious as I approached the gate; would they believe my story? What if they wanted to call my employer? What if I got kicked out and had to fly back? I chose a line that seemed to be moving quickly, and in the event a blonde-haired, blue-eyed border guard in a fetching green uniform looked deep into my eyes from behind the glass, stamped my documents and handed them back without saying a word.
I met my travelling companion M. in the lobby, where we booked a cab. I was anticipating getting ripped off from the start by wily Russians, but the guy at the cell phone booth let me call my homestay host for free from his cell, and the cab company charged us a flat rate from the airport that was less than expected. The cabby drove like a maniac, twisting through traffic at 130km/hour past giant trucks, big feral dogs on the grass by the highway, and wrecks of previous crashes while American rock music played on the stereo. The drive into St. Petersburg looks like Ottawa, just bigger: highways through tall forests.
Once we got in her apartment, our host Anna was quiet and serious, while her mother – whom she lives with – conversed garrulously with us in Russian, even though neither M. nor myself can speak a word. I liked them both. We dropped off our bags and took the tram to the local mall; the ticket collector, a woman in her late 50s, said “Pleased to meet you” in English as she returned our change. Later she nearly fell over as the tram rounded a steep curve and we helped steady her. The mall was closing when we arrived, but we found a creperie in the food court and were served by a handsome young man who spoke perfect English. Which I found odd, considering this isn’t a tourist neighbourhood, but welcome.
The apartment building is in a neighbourhood of highrises, some new and some crumbling, set amidst well-paved roads and scrubland. I can’t figure out its geography: it looks like there were factories here before, since there are still quite a few up, mostly decrepit. Redevelopment has started – there’s the mall, some car dealerships, some grocery stores – but not according to any plan. We walked from the mall to home along paved sidewalks, a dirt path, across roads. Yet it can’t be completely unplanned, since the tramline runs through it.
Some impressions: no one has tried to rip us off. Today we met an American who’d been living in Russia for 6 years (because of his “much-younger girlfriend” – he volunteered the information) and who warned me that leaving my jacket and bag on a restaurant seat while I went to order food marked me as a target. He said he had a friend, a former pickpocket, who would give classes to the St. Petersburg police about how to spot pickpockets, and that tourist season was when many people made their living. But the airport people didn’t screw us over, the shopkeepers haven’t overcharged us, the young men I observe hanging outside metro stations or subways (underground passages) don’t approach us – and we’re audibly talking in English. Maybe there are slower, older tourists with big cameras around their necks to prey upon.
It’s relatively easy to get by with pointing. Most people don’t speak any English; staff know a few words. M. is making great strides decoding the cyrillic alphabet but so far we’re only a day on the path to literacy. But if you point, smile, and gesture, you don’t always get exactly what you want, but you get close (e.g. I was trying to order tap water in a restaurant and got lemonade instead.) The language barrier may be generational, as there are plenty of ads in English for young peoples’ things like beer and clothing.
You can be vegetarian here, if you’re prepared to eat a lot of dairy. Vegan would be impossible unless you cooked all your food yourself. The grocery store has 4 aisles of candy and chocolate, and a lot of brandy, cognac and armagnac I’ve never seen before, much from Armenia.
The culture shock I’m experiencing is more to do with the lack of the familiar and the uncertainty at the end of this trip, not because of anything overtly bad. I like staying where ordinary Russians stay, the buildings we saw today are gorgeous, and it’s still hard to believe I’m at the centre of the Russian Revolution. The July Days, the storming of the Winter Palace, it all happened in this city. On that note, some photos of myself in the Smolny, pretending to be a Bolshevik, will arrive soonish.