Let's start off this incredibly long post with a little recap of my last night of soloing in Helsinki. I decided that successfully complete my first major solo adventure required at least a small celebration. So I treated Frog and myself to a nice dinner (when I say nice I am speaking in relative terms - remember that I am a poor traveler). The "tex-mex" place I mentioned early had a few tex-mex items, but didn't have the atmosphere I was looking for. So I consulted my handy-dandy map-o-Helsinki, which also had a bunch of restaurant ads. It turns out there is another Western-themed restaurant just down the street from the first - a little place called Santa Fe. According to the ad it had been voted best food in Helsinki for three years running. The menu out front didn't look have bad and the prices were decent, so I figured I'd go for it. It was just the kind of place I needed. There were a bunch of kitschy knick-knacks all over the walls, and they had old tequila bottles for candlestick holders. It was so much fun! And I seriously had the best meal of my trip so far. I ordered the "avocado grilled chicken salad" - which had every imaginable salad item on it, plus some. And it was probably enough for about two people rather than just a little American girl (even with a Texas appetite). The best part about it, other than the avocadoes, was how spicy the chicken was. It was fabulous! The Dutch guy sitting next to me ordered the same thing and agreed with me.
After the wonderous meal, I headed back and packed my things, then took some time to do everything that I could possibly think of doing on the internet, because this was probably my last chance for free wireless before returning to the US. [It's a good thing I did that too - I have take a bus to get to anywhere with internet access from my dorm. And forget wireless.]
The bus to St. Petersburg was a bit of an adventure. The whole trip took about 6 hours, but I think we were only moving for about 4 and a half of those hours. When we got to the border, the train stopped and an announcement was made - "The WCs and restaurant car are closed until we finish border formalities. Please return to your seats. Leaving the train is prohibited with out permission of the customs agents." So we sat there. And sat some more. Finally these burly border guards got to our car, took everyone's passport, and left. And we waited some more. Eventually the Finnish railways people came back with our passports, all stamped and ready to go, and the train began to move. Then the "portable bank" trolley came by so that we could change our euros into rubles and get our tax refund cheques from our EU purchases. I almost forgot about that! I rummaged around and found my form from my camera purchase in Budapest. The Finnish guy was completely perplexed by this - he had never seen the Hungarian version of the form, and had no idea what the exchange rate of the Hungarian Forint was. I think it was the fact that I was owed a few thousand forints that was throwing him off. He made a few phone calls and eventually came back with about 45 euros changed into rubles.
I'm glad that I did this when I did, because as soon as I got off the train, I was swept away by my Russian driver, who spoke no English and had the single goal of getting me to the dormitory - there was no time for a pit stop or ATM run. I was a bit scared (with good reason, it turns out) when he said something along the lines of "no seatbelt necessary" when I got it and discovered that there was no seatbelt. I think that was the scariest part of the entire trip - zooming through the crowded streets of St. Petersburg, going 70 miles an hour down two lane streets with cars parked haphazardly on both sides. But we got there in one piece. He dropped me off in some random office on the sixth floor with a lady who didn't speak English and left before I could even say thank you.
I eventually figured out that the lady needed a deposit to give me my key, but other than that I had no idea what she wanted me to do next. Luckily a Chinese girl came in after me, and she spoke English in addition to Russian, and took me down to the other office where I got my smartcard to get into the building. What luck!
I finally got to my room a bit later, to discover that two of my three roommates speak English pretty well. They are all very nice. It took me a bit longer to figure out where I was supposed to be the next day and how to get there. Eventually I found a phone card so that I could call home, and I got the cell phone number for the contact here in St. Petersburg, who told me to meet them at the Hermitage at 11 the next morning. But how to get there? I figured I'd get up early and figure it out in the morning, so I went to sleep (I thought it was early, since the sun was still up, but it was about 1.30 at that point). At 8.45, a woman came knocking at the door. "Frank Hannah, Frank Hannah!" Apparently she was delivering a message that I was to wait for a driver to take me to the University at 9.30. Okay. I waited, and was delivered promptly. But there must have been some confusion - I was supposed to be at the Hermitage. I told the University people I would have to come back in the afternoon, as my first class at the museum was starting at 11. Luckily it's only about a 20 minute walk, so I hauled over there and met Elena and the other six people in the program - who are all from the same school, Rhode Island School of Design. Hmmm. I guess I'm special. There should be other people from the RSL program in my language classes, but in the art classes, I'm doing my own thing. As if that's any different from my normal place in life.
We had a nice introductory tour of the museum, then found where we can go for our free lunches. :-D. I haven't had a free meal in so long! Then we made it over to the Hermitage Youth Center - our HQ for the program. That's where I am right now - because we get free internet! (They won't let me hook up my laptop though). There we met a few of the other teachers, and I parted ways from the others for the weekend (they were on there way to buy art supplies, and we have free time until Tuesday after that). I managed to find my way home from the museum without any major incidents, though it took a bit of time.
When I got back to the dorm, I met my Italian neighbors. Apparently they turn their place into a nightclub which they call "la dolce vita" on Friday nights. The were loud, but very nice. I was a bit tired to go party it up with the other foreigners, so I called it a night.
Now I'm off on a mission - to find a few necessary items (ie - soap) and some food to cook for dinner. I still don't know what I'm going to do this weekend, but I'll figure something out.
I'll try to keep the blog updated regularly, but I'm not sure on the pictures. I'll keep looking for a place that will let me hook up my lap top so that I can transfer them. If not, I'll post one or two on here every now and there.
Until next time...