Tuesday, May 12, 2009

St. Petersburg, Russia- the Hermitage + Pros and cons of visiting

St. Petersburg

There was a very nice woman who looked out for me on the train, (she must not have been born Russian) and with her help, I arrived safely in St. Petersburg, where I was picked up by a friend of a friend, St. Peter.

True fact: During Communist rule, the city was called Leningrad, after the Reds fell, they renamed it after my new friend. Or so he claims.

St. Pete doesn’t let his fame and power go to his head. He is really down to earth, honest guy who makes a great host. He works at a major real estate company, whose “for sale” signs adorn every major building in the center of town. I have memorized their phone number, because Pete points to every single one of his sale signs. He’s a proud boy.

St. Petersburg sits on the Finland Bay and the city is known as the Northern Venice, as various rivers and canals cut through the city. Also, the sun sets at midnight here which means that I have no sense of what time it is. Businesses close down while it’s still light out, and the streets are deserted at what seems like noon.

After chatting over food, it was either 11:30 at night, or noon if you’re looking at the sun. St. Peter drives me to what was advertised on the Internet as a 4 star hotel, which I was getting for the bargain price of $90 a night. The lobby was okay, the elevator itself a bit dodgier, and I opened my room door and the only thought that went through my head was “Am I in prison?”
If you told me this was a jail cell, I’d believe you. I literally cannot lay down width wise because it is less than 6 feet across. The shower gives me at best water 3 degrees above freezing, and in order to bathe, and the water pressure and unchangeable angle of the shower-head forces me to lean in at a 60 degree angle for any water to hit my skin.

This used to be the home of the Czar and his posse, so most buildings in the center of town are quite exquisitely designed in a 19th century sort of way.

Of course, I made my  obligatory visits to the Cathedrals, as well as paying to get into a Russian navy exhibit where I understood absolutely zero. Not a word of English, Spanish, or Italian. (probably a good way to keep 19th century Maritime secrets seeing as I’m a spy)

Then there's the Hermitage, the former  palace of the Czar, now a first rate Museum.
Rich + St. Pete in front of the Hermitage. Pic taken 10:30 PM
Tickets have two prices- one for Russian nationals, and one for tourists. Pete instructed me to walk in and say, “Priviet” (meaning hello,) in a harsh, authoritarian tone (so I might be mistaken for Russian) and if the worker asked me anything , to raise my left arm up and drop it rapidly while making a harsh, unfriendly guttural tone as if to say, “Leave me alone woman, I just might be a crazy Russian”
So I walk to the ticket counter. “Priviett,” I scowl, placing down 100 rubles (the Russian price) on the counter.
She looks up at me, “350” she states.
I raise my arm up and drop it in disgust, “leave me alone woman, I’m a crazy Russian.”
She looks at me blankly, “350,” she expresses to me in an un-amused tone.
“Ya Ruskie! Ya Ruskie!” I retort absolutely outraged.
She takes a beat, leans into the window ever so slightly, “350.”
We might have won the cold war, but the Russians won this battle. What a warrior, my hat’s off to her.
Inside I saw art ranging from ancient Egpyt, to Greek, to Roman, to Russian and Spanish. I have to say though, my favorite part of the museum was a section devoted to Russian school children. At least I think it was Russian kids …
Children’s art, or 18th century master? Rich couldn’t tell you. As he’s been told, Rich would be unlikely to succeed in a career as an art dealer.
I also a saw a statue of Marcus Aurelias and his son Lucius (both of whom were depicted in the movie Gladiator, leading me, as a trained historian, to conclude that the movie was not only based on historical events, but is rather an accurate account of what transpired (word for word as the producers took a time machine back to 100 AD!) Probably the simplest way to write a script. I'm envious.
statue of Marcus Aurelius
Still, there is only so much time I can look at art without getting a weensie bored, and so after a few hours, I departed the czar’s palace and headed out to find some new adventure.

St. Pete and Olga
Each night I was in St. Petersburg joined by Peter and his girlfriend Olga after they got off of work. I have to say, they were both very very nice people, and Olga snapped 90% of the photos that I took in St. Petersburg.

The last evening I spent there was the nicest. I frankly get tired of the city and it’s concrete, I need green. Pete and Olga took me to an island (many nearby islands in the Finland Bay) and we took a walk down a road lined by trees in all direction. It was very close to being in a Russian national forest, and I’d imagine this is as pretty as Russia gets. (not exactly Thailand or Fiji)

We had a great time running around, throwing a tin foil ball back and forth and at each other. We also happened upon a miniature zoo, where we saw, in the middle of Northern Russia, and I swear I am not making this up, an ostrich.

(Russia's favorite native bird)
(Russian Fox- if this isn't the best picture of a fox ever taken (by Olga) I'd like to see what is)

On the whole, I probably allotted far too much time for Russia. Aside of St. Pete (the man) and Olga, there wasn’t much about Russia I liked. I think it has to be the most tourist unfriendly place I have been to outside of, let’s say, Northwestern Pakistan.

Nevertheless, as I deeply care about you guys, I have compiled an exhaustive list of travel tips and recommendations about Russia which are below.

Rich’s exhaustive list of travel tips for the USSR—skip it!

On the other hand, if you ever thought of moving to Russia, I have also carefully weighed in on the pros and cons of doing so--

Con: friendliness that make New Yorkers seem like Fijians,
massive corruption, the Russian Mob, Vanessa’s taxi driver and others like him, you’re automatically illiterate with the alien alphabet, bottles of Evian available for $7, bone chilling winters

Pro: The absence of black people gives you an excellent shot at making the Russian national basketball team.

That’s all for Mother Russia- up next—Prague!

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