Sunday, July 24, 2011

There's no place like it

     After Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod, Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Dublin, Cork, London, and Helsinki, I am now sitting safe and sound at home in Mamaroneck, the Friendly Village.
     It's really, really weird.
     It's a bit of a cliche, but I can't help wondering if this trip ever actually happened. My father and I went to visit my grandmother, and her apartment was exactly the same as it has been since I was five years old. My cousins were a little taller, my grandma was actually a little shorter, but the conversation, despite being about totally new things that we had never talked about because none of us had ever been to Russia before, still felt exactly the same. We had coffee on the front porch in the same yellow mugs, said hi to the same neighbors as they walked by, and my cat still looks upon me as nothing more than an annoying roommate. There were a few seconds this afternoon when I honestly believed that I had daydreamed the entire thing, documents, White Nights, babushki, and all.
     Then, fortunately, one of the two enormous cardboard boxes I had mailed home from Russia arrived. It was (conveniently, both narratively and for my sanity) full of souvenirs and the high heels I had felt pressured into wearing to class. There were postcards from everywhere I went, and an enormous puzzle from the Hermitage for my dad. The trip definitely happened. How else could I read the Russian labels on the box?
     And of course it happened. I now feel weird that every meal doesn't include tea. I think it's funny that people don't wear slippers in the house and a little gross that they wear the same clothes indoors as they do outdoors. Cashiers smile ALL THE TIME, and I haven't yet decided if it's nice or just kind of creepy. To quote a friend of mine from Bard-Smolny: "You walk to the bus stop and see an old lady, two gang members, and some dude who bears a startling resemblance to Andrei the Giant. You are most intimidated by the old lady." Mayonnaise comes in jars, not tubes, and milk comes in cartons, not bags. Ketchup is not considered a spicy food, and ordinary pancakes seem as thick as tires. The heat is unbelievable, and the sun goes down early. I don't need exact change, but I can't get anywhere because there isn't a tram or a shared taxi in sight. WHAT IS GOING ON?
     So this is the very late final post of Notes from the Undergrad. I don't have any sweeping conclusions to make, except that this trip was definitely the best thing I have ever done in my life, and I am absolutely going back someday. You should all come with me! We'll start the paperwork tomorrow.
     Thank you for reading!

the undergrad

Monday, June 20, 2011

The World Needs More White Nights, Part 2

     This is my second-to-last post. I know I said before that this would be my last post altogether, so I hope no one is too disappointed.
     It's summer now, and the weather is unbelievable. We held an impromptu soccer match behind the dorms last Tuesday afternoon (the fact that we got tired and cut it short is the only reason I didn't win the title of World's Least Coordinated Soccer Player), and then went to the beach. This beach is only accessible through a hole in a metal fence, but the entire neighborhood seems to use it, and it was very nice. You really don't want to go swimming there, though.


Sunbathing along the embankment in Primorskaya
     We had our farewell dinner on a boat floating up and down the canals. I didn't take many pictures because my camera generally couldn't handle the bobbing; just imagine all of the amazing views I've ever managed to photograph, spread out along the embankments in bright summer weather. It was breathtaking. Even when we got splashed.

     And now, the moment we've all been waiting for: the White Nights! Technically, it's not the real White Nights, because it does still get dark around 2 am, but it's getting light again by 3. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the best part.

The Hermitage, 2 am
The Palace Bridge, 2:30 am
Just after 3 am, one of the bridges going up.
Ship waiting for bridge to go up.

St. Isaac's

The Bronze Horseman!
The Hermitage, 3 am

Crossing to the Petrograd side, 5 am, view of the Strelka
     Do you remember all of those pictures taken from the bridge during my morning commute? At 9 a.m. they looked like this:
 And later in the day, like this:
     Well, from the bridge right before it was scheduled to go up, in the weeks preceding the White Nights, that view looks like this:

      I don't think there's anything left that I can say, because while I'm good at being snarky about things like public transportation and the weather, truly beautiful, mind-blowing experiences like the White Nights deserve a much better writer than me. Maybe that sounds like a cop-out, but I promise you that I really, honestly mean it.
     The reflections on a semester abroad are for the next post. So I'll wrap up this one with a short (24-second) video I took on the English Embankment, just to prove that yes, the 22 hours of sunlight were real, and Petersburg remains the weirdest, most beautiful, most exhilarating place I've ever been.

And that's nearly the last piece of news from the undergrad!


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The World Needs More White Nights

     I will be leaving Petersburg the day after tomorrow.
     Wait, what? But I just got here!
     Sadly, yes, it's June, and the semester is over. So before I go, let's do two last catch-up blog posts about how wonderful this city is in May and June! We'll start with: The Night at the Museums!
     Ночь Музеев is held at the end of May, and for 300 rubles you can get into most of the city's museums, which remain open from 9 pm to 6 am. There are special buses to take you from museum to museum, and the only thing to watch out for is the bridges, which go up at around 2 am and can leave you stranded on the wrong island. My friend Sarah and I ended up mostly wandering, but we did finally visit the Museum of Political History, which was one of the most interesting museums I've seen here.

The most polite ремонт sign I have ever seen.
And one of the most terrifying propaganda posters I've ever seen: "My papa is a hero! And yours?"
Identification cards
"A Dictionary of Words that are Difficult for Peasants to Understand."
"With us... with them." ("us" being the USSR, and "them" being Nazi Germany)
Made by a political prisoner.
"Great Stalin is the candle of Communism!" (PS: he's reading Lenin)
"Moral Code for the Building of Communism"
     Also in May, my Uncle Kevin came to visit! We visited millions (okay, dozens) of museums, and finally went to Peterhof, the enormous palace and gardens with world-famous fountains, built outside of Petersburg by -- you guessed it -- Peter the Great.


A pond
One of the weirder, cooler fountains
Русалочка! Actually, just a lady with blue dreadlocks, but from this distance she really does look like a mermaid.
Despite its promise of preventative service, we didn't eat here.
     Along the way, I introduced my uncle to Теремок, the fantastic bliny place that is on every corner, and we had an interesting time getting into the Yusupov Palace. The Yusupovs were the richest family in Russia just prior to the Revolution, and our history professor had encouraged us to go there a number of times. So my friend Sarah and I decided to meet my uncle at the palace at 3:30.
     The two of us get there at 3:15, and a sign on the ticket window announces one of the ubiquitous технические перерывы (technical breaks) from 3:30 to 3:45. So we buy all three tickets at once -- two student tickets, and one adult. When my uncle arrives, however, the ticket-checker at the outside door would have to be blind not to see that he's American, and he tells us that the tickets we have are not valid, because they're for Russian citizens, not foreign citizens. By this time, the ticket office's technical break has begun. Sarah and I go back to the front door to explain that it's not our fault the ticket lady assumed the third person would be Russian, and that we bought our tickets with our Russian student IDs.
     "You bought your tickets with Russian IDs, yes. But your дядинка (little uncle)?"
     We convince this gentleman that my six foot tall little uncle is buying himself a foreigner's ticket as we speak, and the three of us are finally allowed inside, 500 rubles poorer. There we rent three audioguides, for which my uncle puts down one thousand-ruble note, which he will get back when he returns the guides, and one coat-check-style plastic number for the three of them. We're in business!
     Until the second ticket-checker stops us.
     You see, you two have tickets as Russians, with a Russian-language excursion. He (the little uncle) has a foreigner's ticket, with an audioguide. You can't go together.
     But we have audioguides. They're right here.
     Yes, but you paid for the excursion.
     But we don't want the excursion. What good is an excursion going to do my uncle? He doesn't speak Russian! (Also, he's not a Boy Scout).
     It doesn't matter, because his ticket is with an audioguide.
     But we paid for the audioguides! Why can't we use them?
     Because your ticket says you're on the excursion.
     Well, can my uncle just tag along with the excursion and listen to his audioguide?
     No, because he didn't pay for the excursion.
     But he doesn't speak Russian! He wouldn't understand it anyway! Kind of like me and this conversation!
     Also, you can't take those audioguides on the tour.
     But we paid for the-

     Long story short, Sarah and I went in one direction, on the excursion, and my uncle was sent off in another direction, wearing three sets of audioguides, with wires coming out everywhere, like a kind of touristic Frankenstein. The mandatory babushki (there's basically one in every room of every museum) kept asking him if his audioguide was working. To which his answer would have been, I imagine, if he spoke Russian, "Yes, they all are!"
     Overall, though, it's a lovely museum, and I highly recommend it. Then we went to a Dostoevsky-themed restaurant for dinner, called "The Idiot." If anybody read the New York Times travel section on Sunday, this restaurant was mentioned! So, we were into it while it was still underground. Also, June 2nd was apparently Dostoevsky Day. I'm not sure how you celebrate it, though; perhaps you (insert literary reference here), or maybe you (insert second literary reference) and then feel really bad about it.
     (Okay, I'm done.)
     And we saw Dostoevsky's tomb, when we went to the Alexander Nevsky monastery. It was tricky taking pictures there, because you're not allowed to photograph the monks. There are three cemeteries in the immediate area, which were very interesting in and of themselves. I personally really like cemeteries, but these threw me off, because, unlike most Western cemeteries, all of the Russian cemeteries I've seen have consisted of small plots marked off by fences, which just get crowded into a smaller and smaller space. It's a very different feel from the long, orderly, green rows I'm used to.


Approach to the monastery
Within the monastery
Alexander Nevsky himself
Inside the Anna Akhmatova museum. Very interesting, and definitely worth the trip, but not exactly what you call an uplifting experience.
Anna Akhmatova's kitchen

     And at long last I visited the Menshikov Palace! It's an extention of the Hermitage, and surprisingly has one of the lowest entry fees in Petersburg. Prince Menshikov was a close friend of Peter the Great, and after the tsar's death he ended, as all such stories must, up in Siberia. It was a very impressive museum.

     We've had about a week and a half since classes ended to pack up our troubles and go traveling. The Baltic states were popular (bungee-jumping in Lithuania, who knew?), but I met up in Prague with a friend from Wes, then continued on to Warsaw. Again, these will not be pictures of Russia, but these two cities were so cool that I hope no one will mind my raving about them.
     Interestingly, I found Czech easier to understand than Russian, especially when it was written down. I think it's because Czech spelling seemed to be closer to the English transliteration of Russian, while Polish spells like it just lost a game of Scrabble. Anyway, Prague was wonderful. I simply couldn't believe how beautiful it was. Especially on the bus from the airport, when I was approaching the city from out of town, what with the red roofs and the rolling hills, it looked like how I had expected Vienna to look. Though apparently many movies that supposedly take place in Vienna are shot in Prague.
See? Wow. Just wow.

The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn

The Astronomical Clock
A golem!

Another golem!

On Charles Bridge

I like this: the sign for the Museum of Communism in Prague reads. "Next to Casino," and is itself next to a McDonald's.

     After Prague, we were worried that Warsaw would be a bit of a let-down; we even considered changing our plans to cut out Warsaw altogether. But that would have lost us more money than we'd already spent, so we hopped on the overnight train and left.
     So we settle in, it's a train like any other, Harry-Potter-style compartments with six seats that slide down to make three beds (so if there are four people in the compartment I'd imagine it's a rather awkward night), but overall, nothing special. Then I got up to open the window, and rested my arms on the windowsill.
     "DUDE! You have to do this!" It felt like we were in a movie. We got to stand there with the Cezch countryside rushing by, and basically we both agreed that even if Warsaw turned out to be a total wash, this alone made it worth it.
     And then, as it turned out, Warsaw was wonderful. It was orderly, and sunny, and clean, and modern, and altogether just incredibly pleasant. I highly, highly recommend it. Especially the pierogies.
From the train

WWII monument in Warsaw

The Old Town Square at night

The Old Town Square was so lively at night! There were hip-hop dancers, and fire jugglers, and people holding flashlights while a guy in a tower with a megaphone gave them orders about when to hold them up. I believe they were recreating the constellations as observed by Copernicus.

And, boy, are those street names hard to pronounce.


It's so pretty!
The New Town Square (which is obviously really old)

There were crypts in this church, which were the cleanest, most well-lit, best-smelling crypts I've ever been in (which is a  higher number than you'd think). The best part? The exit was at the top of a flight of stairs with a chain across it. Next to the chain was a polite little sign telling visitors to let themselves out whenever they felt like it, but to please re-hook the chain after them. Oh, Poland! You're so pleasant! In Russia, there would be at least one babushka, if not two, who would not trust you to correctly hook and unhook a chain if your life depended on it! The entrance tickets to the crypt were being sold by a priest arguing heatedly in Polish with a nun, though, so to avoid being a bad punchline, we waited until they were finished.

Lots of pictures of John Paul II. I wonder why...

I like this picture

     Well, that's all for now, folks. I am preparing one last post about the White Nights, which will be up soon (I promise!).

     'Til then, that's the news from the undergrad!