Saturday, June 10, 2006

Adventures in miscommunication

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...

Friday, June 09, 2006

Greetings from Russia

I made it to Russia just fine - I wanted to let everyone know. I don't have time for a long post right now, but I've got one ready to go on my laptop, I just need to get it on CD or something and post it. My posting is probably going to be pretty erratic for the next few months, as there isn't an internet cafe near my dorm, so I'll only be able to use it when I come over to the Hermitage Youth Center. Anyway, I hope all is well back home and I will try to talk to all of you soon!
До свидания! (I hope I spelt that right - I'm on my way to take my Russian placement test...)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The last day before things have to get serious...

I think I did a pretty good job making the most of my last day of traveling before I have to settle down in St. Petersburg. I woke up with the sun this morning - at about 4 am, I think it was. I rolled back over and slept some more, but did get out of bed relatively early. I decided to wander around a bit. This is only the second city (the other was Budapest) where I didn't take an sort of tour. I kind of wish I had - I've only been hear for about 36 hours, and I know I'm missing so much. But there is only so much you can do in two days, and a tour wasn't high up on the priority list. And they cost money, which is running low at this point.
Anyway, I ended going back to the Kauppatori around midmorning. I wanted to eat an early lunch there, before it became too overrun with tourists. There are a lot of vendors selling fresh grilled fish and other stuff, with the grills right there. One of them was grilling a bunch of salmon, which made me miss going to Colorado and fishing with Grandma and Grandpa - nothing is better than catching a salmon in the backyard, then grilling it within the hour :-D. She was also giving out samples of what she called "small whitefish." The were suprisingly tasty, even though they looked like battered and fried sardines. The finnish word for this kind of fish is "muikut", and according to the "fish girl" (I didn't have a chance to get her name), this is what Finns say instead of cheese when they are having their picture taken. I thought that was kind of neat. I talked to her for a while as I was eating my helping of muikut. Apparently she had just returned from studying at Tec de Monterey. She agreed with me on the whole Finnish-sounding-like-Spanish-even-though-they're-not-related thing.
Also, it was during my wanderings in the market that I met the largest concentration of southerns of the entire trip. I met a two couples from Tennessee, three couples from Georgia, and a couple originally from Texas but now living in Florida, all in the course of about thirty minutes. Old southern folk are so friendly.
After the market I took Vesa's advice again (he was the Finnish guy I met in Salzburg) and went to the Kiasma, the local museum of modern art. It was awesome! Those of you who were on the Santa Fe trip in 2004 might recall the "grotesque" show we saw at SITE Santa Fe. Well, the top floor of the museum had a similar theme. They even had some works by some of the same artists. Remember the bathroom-tile cross-section with the blood and guts beneath? They have a few by that artist here too! It made me laugh. The gift shop was also suprisingly good. Lots of fun postcards.
Anyway, I need to go get something to eat again. The sun tells me it's early, but my stomach says it's late. I saw a restaurant earlier that claims to sell texmex. I fear I will be disappointed, but at this point I'll take what I can get - I really need a quesadilla.
I swear I'm getting better organized with this. Here is an example - If you go to instead of the other link, it's much nicer looking :-D. And I'm starting to load some of the pictures that are on my UTD webspace so that all the trip pictures are in one spot. See? I'm getting better :-D.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Something odd I've noticed

I just want to make a quick comment about something I find interesting. Even though I know the two languages are in no way linguistically related, Finnish sounds an aweful lot like Spanish to my ears. I don't know if it's the tempo at which they speak or the pronouciation or what, but I keep feeling like I'm in Spain (except for the whole temperature thing). I said something to this effect to the waitress at dinner tonight, and she agreed. She had apparently been to California recently and kept on turning her head, thinking she had heard someone speaking Finnish, but on closer listening it turned out to be Spanish. Odd you may think, but I had a similar experience in Budapest. Hungarian is actually the language most closely related to Finnish (both are nearly impossible for foreigners to learn), yet I kept on thinking I was hearing English being spoken. Maybe it's just my ears longing for home. I don't really know. Anyway, I just thought I'd share. It doesn't really matter in any case - everyone here speaks English very well, so I'm getting along just fine without a word in Finnish.
Now that it's 11:30 and finally getting dark, I think I'll go to bed.

"The Shipping News (I'm missing my DVD collection right about now)

The last 48 hours have been quite an adventure. When I booked passage on the ferry from Rostock to Hanko, I assumed that I would be given the cheapest ticket possible, seeing as how I was using my eurail pass to pay for it. It turns out that they booked me in a 4-bed room, with a shower and toilet connected. And there was only one other lady in the room. So essentially for the cost of two nights in a pricey hostel, I had a bed for two nights with my own bathroom. Wow. And because there were no windows (we were in an interior cabin), there was nothing to keep me from getting the sleep I really needed to get over this illness, whatever it is.
The lady I was bunking with was kind of funny. She was a Russian used-car saleswoman, and she insisted on having me practice my Russian skills late into the evening, whilst she downed an entire bottle of some apple-tasting liquor. And the volume increased with each glass. Oh it was fun. Finally I had to tell here that I needed to sleep, so she let me.
We didn't actually leave Rostock until 6 am, but they allow people to start boarding at 10 pm the night before, so I got a fair amount of sleep that first night. And when I woke up we were well underway. I took a shower (A PRIVATE SHOWER!), then set about exploring the ship. It was like being in a hotel on the water, but very overpriced. They wanted 9 euros to use the wireless internet for an hour! I said no thanks (knowing that the wireless signal in the hostel here in Helsinki is free). There were three different bars, a disco, a business center, lots of shops, a name it, they had it, within reason. I spent a lot of time catching up on sleep though. The gentle rocking of the ship with very relaxing. The snack bar did have a nice soup of the day, though I can't tell you what kind it was. It felt good on my throat, that's all that really matters.
I woke up this morning just as we were arriving in Hanko. Ekaterina offered to give me a ride to Helsinki, but I turned her down. First of all, she was starting to annoy me (funny, but very loud, especially when she was on the phone with her children). Also, I know better than to accept rides from strangers, especially when there was a relatively cheap bus right there at the dock. And she would have had to drop me off far from my hostel, which as convenient.
There were only three of us on the transfer bus to Helsinki. There was a German girl, who was traveling mainly by bicycle through Scandanavia (how cool is that!?). And there was a portly young man from Lechtenstien (at least that's what his jacket said - in three different places). He didn't speak very good English, but it turns out we are both staying at the same hostel - the Stadion Hostel. It's INSIDE the Olympic Stadium, from when Helsinki hosted the 1952 Olympics. It's a decent place. Though nothing compares to the place I stayed in Rostock. That was the best hostel of the trip by far.
Because I couldn't check in until 4 and I only have 48 hours in the city, I decided to do some sightseeing. I met a Finnish guy when I was at the YOHO in Salzburg, and he gave me a list of things to do. I started from the top today. He was right - they were all cool places to go. First, I took the 3T tram that circles the city, to get my bearings and to see a bunch of the landmarks. I was suprised by the amount of green - tons of parks, especially compared to Berlin. I got off at the Kauppatori - the main marketplace. From here you can see both of the main churchs, with an especially good view of one of them (I can't remember the name at the moment). I bought some lunch (I think I'll go back there for lunch tomorrow, it was so good), wandered around a bit, then hopped on the ferry boat to Suomenlinna - the fortress island. I learned a lot of the history of Helsinki on the island. I am clueless when it comes to European history (though I'm learning quickly). Finland has only been an independent country since 1918. It was originally part of Sweden for about 700-800 years, then it was taken by the Russians before it got its independence. It was the Swedes (with the financial backing of the French) who built the fortress, which they called Sveaborg (the Swedish Fortress). The Finns renamed it Suomenlinna when they gained their independence.
Now I'm back at the hostel, regaining the warm that I lost on my wanderings about the city. I think I'll track down some pizza for tonight - I have another craving.
Pictures from Rostock are now up on Flickr. Take a look.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Being sick sucks

I woke up this morning after a peaceful night's rest (this really is the best hostel I've stayed in thus far) to find that I could barely swallow anything. My throat must be rebelling against all the döner kebaps and pizza, because it really doesn't like me right now. I decided to see a few sites anyway (especially after the owners told me I could leave all my stuff here, even though check out is at 11). I borrowed another guide book and got directions to go to the Warnemünde, which is basically the main fishermen's area, where all the touristy things to do are. I walked up and down the docks, bought some freshly cooked fish (which I could hardly eat :-( ), then wandered up and down the beach, all the way from the old lighthouse to the new one on the other side. I was nice, though a bit windy and cold (I don't know if it was the weather or my raging fever). After a few hours, I decided that I'd had enough (I had a migraine by this time, which was ruining the sunny weather for me). I hoped back on the S-bahn and went back to the hostel, where Gerhardt let me sleep on the couch in the laundry room. It was nice and dark and cold, and there was no laundry being done, so it was quiet too. I think I slept for a good 4 hours. I still have a headache and fever and a horribly sore throat, but I here there is a medical center on my boat, so I'm gonna hold out til morning and see how I feel.
I think I'll take a taxi to the harbour. I don't have the energy to walk from the end of the S-bahn to the office with all my bags.
See you all on the flip side.