Saturday, July 08, 2006

Celebrating the Fourth...a few days late

Plans to have a big Independence Day celebration here in St. Petersburg kind of fell through on Tuesday night. We had trouble finding other Americans to hang out with, and we were all completely exhausted from our trip to Moscow, so we ended up hanging out at a pizza place, where we stuffed ourselves (an American pasttime, right?) while a big group of Italians huddled around the TV inside to watch the World Cup match. A rather anticlimatic end to a wonderful weekend, but what the hey - I had fun. I ended up having to sleep on the other girls' floor though. We didn't get done with dinner until about 1230 (that's what the sun does here - tricks you into thinking it's earlier than it really is), and by that time the metro was closed. But I slept well all the same. There's only so much that can keep you up when you are as tired as I was at that point.
Wednesday and Thursday were pretty uneventful. More museum visits (to the Russian Museum again and the Museum of Ethnography) and another of my private language classes with Elena Romanovna. (She is an awesome teacher by the way - I'm not looking forward to our lessons ending). Friday was when we had the real excitement.
We all piled into a bus on Friday (including all the younger staff from the youth center) and drove to Penates, the former estate of the painter Ilya Repin. We spent about an hour in the museum and wandering about in the garden (after all, our trip had to have at least some sort of academic basis), then we crossed the street and had a picnic/barbeque on the beach next to the Bay of Finland. We roasted hot dogs on an open fire pit, ate lots of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and plums (the latter was a present from Katya's mom, who's dacha is down the street and showed up halfway through the day). The youth center people also brought a healthy supply of cheap beer and box wine*, completing the image of the perfect poor-students' Fourth of July celebration. (*It would have been real wines in bottles but Russian bureaucracy once again got in the way - apparently the government decided that starting July 1, all bottles of wine and spirits must have a new sticker to be sold; they didn't release the new sticker until June 3o, so none of the stores could legal sell any wine to us until they got a new shipment from the factory). We spent all day hanging out by the water, swimming and playing frisbee and volleyball, and just being goofballs. It's been such a long time since we last had a real break from class stuff, and it was particularly nice to have one last day of lightheartedness before we have to start putting together the final exhibition here at the youth center. It is supposed to go up on Tuesday - I don't think any of us are ready. At least I'm not.
Speaking of which, I should be editing photos right now instead of blogging. I should be able to upload a bunch more pictures this afternoon (I put up some more st. Petersburg pictures the other day as well), so make sure you check Flickr either today or tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

My Weekend in Moscow

It is so funny going back to some of the places I visited when I was here six years ago. Let's take the St. Petersburg train station as an example. I don't remember there being so much neon lighting there, but the huge bust of Peter the Great still looms over the heads o fall the people who enter the city by rail. And then there is the spot right in front of the info board where I was sitting with Mrs. Krupala when I pointed out to her that our train was leaving in 10 minutes. What a good story - remind me to tell you about it sometime if you haven't heard it. Also, the "toilets" in the Moscow train station still get the prize for the worst restrooms I've ever had to use - I'm talking about the literal definition of a shit hole. Hmmmm. Fun.
Anyway, the train we took on Friday was by far the nicest train I've ever been on. Nastya assured us that the one back on Monday wouldn't be nearly as charming (a very true statement). The Friday train even had a name - the "Dve Stolitsy", or "Two Capitals". Our beds were turned down when we got on board and there were faux-silk curtains on the window. The best part was that the door locked! Yay for security, or at least a sense of it. Our wagon attendant wasn't the best ever, but I'm used to being self-sufficient when traveling so it wasn't that big a deal. What a difference from our train home - but more on that later.
When we got to Moscow on Saturday morning, we headed straight to the hotel (well, as straight as you can go while navigating the INSANE Moscow Metro system - there are so many different intersecting lines, it's hard to figure out where you're going, especially with the circle line in there; but I love the Moscow Metro stations - very clean and very ornate; there's just something way too cool about marble walls and chandoliers in the subway that makes me want to spend time riding just to see the stations). We all took a nap for a couple of hours, then had some breakfast and headed out for our tour of the Kremlin and Red Square.
Even with threatening clouds and chilly temperatures, this part of the trip was definitely cool. The tour itself was a bit long and boring, but it was more in-depth than my last visit. And we saw more - we actually went inside a couple of the kremlin churches. We were definitely feeling the lack of sleep at that point, so we just took it easy after the tour. We grabbed some snacks in Alexander Garden, then wandered over to Red Square.
I forgot how beautiful this city is. Red in Russian is a synonym for beautiful - how fitting a name it is for this square. One major difference since my last visit is the appearance of St. Basil's Cathedral. I don't remember is being so vibrantly colored. I'm pretty sure some restoration work had been done lately. Either way it is absolutely beautiful. It almost doesn't look real. But I went inside too check and I can assure you all that it is. I'm glad I bought the new camera before heading to Moscow - the sky was just right (it had this ominous look to it) for some really cool shots.
We all ate dinner together at a little cafe, but after dinner half the group (understandably tired from the lack of sleep on the train) went to bed while Andrew, Nastya, Katya and I went on a little adventure.
With the singular goal of finding a place to chill out and have a cold beer in mind, we walked toward the nearest metro station, convinced we would be going towards the center of town. On the way we saw this cute little local cafe/bar. It was only 8.30 and the place was so alive - people were dancing all over the place and singing along to the funky Russian music. It was more of a southern group - Uzbekis or something. They were a lot of fun to hang out with - totally cool with hanging out with a few strange Americans wandering around in their part of town. We ended up staying there until about midnight. This sweet (though not very attractive) little local guy named Dima kept trying to get us to stay. He even bought us champagne and paid the DJ to keep playing, even though the place was obviously closing up. We used our heads and best excuses and headed home to get some sleep. After all, we still had a trip to the club scheduled for the next night after a day chocked full of museum visits.
Sunday was one of the longest days I've had in a long time. Not only did we visit the main building of the Tretyakov Gallery (and see much of its huge collection), but we also walked all the way to the Modern gallery that is part of the Tretyakov. There we had a suprise tour by the lady who runs their new youth center. It was a nice tour but entirely too long. We didn't leave there until around 6.30! We did see a bunch of works by Kandinsky and some etchings by Chagall and a bunch of other really cool pieces, but we were all exhausted and starving by the end. I had my second experience in sushi-eating that evening. Between the seven of us (Katya had gone to visit a friend) we consumed 18 orders (108 pieces) of sushi. Yum.
After much needed naps and a change of clothes, we headed out to find a club, a task which was harder than we thought it would be in a town of 10 million+ people. Our hotel was on the outskirts of town, so we ended up walking about 5 miles before we found a place to hang out. It was weird having darkness on the walk there - we were finally far enough south to have at least a little bit of nightfall. Of course, the sun was starting to come up for the walk home, so the night wasn't too long. We had a good time, though it wasn't the hippest of establishments.
Monday was a day of wandering. We slept as late as we could considering we had to check out, then ate breakfast and took our bags to the train station, where we locked them up and headed back down to the center of town. We went back to Red Square and inside St. Basil's, then went and wandered about in some of the shops. I found a really good Russian text book in the book store, and they had a good selection of English classics too, so I bought a couple of books. We also decided to satisify our cravings for American fast food and paid a visit to McDonalds. Yay for the Royal with Cheese (that's a quarter-pounder with cheese, for those of you haven't left the US or seen Pulp Fiction). Feeling happily disgusting, we wandered around a bit more, stopping in a few more shops and visiting a few more landmarks. Then we sat down to a quiet meal and headed for the train station once again.
Now our train back to St. Petersburg was quite different from the one we had taken on Friday. It was sort of like one of those stereotypes you see in movies. Luckily there were no drunken people singing (at least none that we could hear) and no one who looked too sketchy. I think the other girls were a bit freaked out by it. I thought it was kind of fun. The kind of thing where if you wanted to you could get to know a lot of locals and have a really good time. You just have to keep an extra eye out for you stuff (which I did, very vigilantly seeing as how I had just gotten the stolen camera replaced and don't really want to have to do that again).
We didn't get much of a break this morning. We were supposed to have a free day but instead had to go to the print shop for a lesson in printmaking. It was interesting I guess, but none of us were in the mood to work at it. And it took a lot longer than planned - we didn't get to leave until about 5.30. But that's life I guess. I would like to relax. I haven't had a real day off in about two weeks. And it's the Fourth of July for crying out loud. I think we're all going to go celebrate our independence tonight in our own way. We may not have fireworks or watermelon, but I think it'll be fun. And once-in-a-lifetime.
Happy 4th, yall!