i finally put some of the photos ksenia and i took up in a little gallery
and did a little housecleaning on the site. most of the pictures are of the architecture of st. petersburg and moscow, which people may not find exciting. there is one good picture of me in a furry hat
though. so sexy.
it's been a little over a week since i got back from my trip and i'm already forgetting the words i picked up. i learned a bit of russian before i went over through some tapes that i bought. they taught simple phrases that might come in handy for tourists, stuff like "i don't understand russian", and "excuse me, where is red square". in practice, you can get pretty far in any country starting from a base of just 4 words - please, thanks, beer, bathroom - and pick it up as you go along.
russian is a tough language though. i can kind of find my way in french or german because the roots of the words are common to english. russian is just weird, with a different alphabet and entirely different sounds that we don't have in english, and vice versa. some of the newer words are taken directly from english though, which made for a little bit of familiarity once i started being able to read a little. it didn't take long to figure out what an internet cafe looks like, since the internet and cafe are both spelled phonetically in russian. they do have some problems with purely english sounds though, like trying to find a russian spelling for subway (saabvey). the subway shops in russia still have the same heinous yellow store front, btw, even with a different sign on it.
thankfully russian people were very good about the language thing. i didn't run into anyone that seemed offended at my butchering their language, and my russian grammar skills are well below tonto's english. the one person that couldn't get the hang of talking to me in a way i could understand was ksenia's grandfather. he would use a russian word i've never heard of to explain something, and if ksenia wasn't around to translate we were stuck. it didn't seem to bother us when we were watching hockey or playing cards though. he's not a dim bulb either, he kicked my ass 17 of the 18 games of chess we played, which was a thoroughly humbling experience.
the whole trip was humbling in some ways. no matter how nice people are to you, not being able to say anything but the most basic phrases or understand anything spoken to you made me feel very frustrated and stupid. i constantly had that perplexed smile of someone who has no idea what you're talking about. i hate that smile. that smile was one of the reasons i was eventually happy to get back home.
st. petersburg is the answer to an interesting question - what would life be like if no one needed a bungalow and a white picket fence. in the time that i was there i did not see a single single family dwelling, just blocks of flats as far as the eye could see. st. pete is not a small city either, it has a population of almost 5 million, but they're densely packed into a small area because everyone lives in a high rise of 4 to 30 floors. this allows for very good public transportation, with a metro that goes almost everywhere and thousands of little busses to fill in the gaps. good public transportation in turn means a lot less cars (about 1/10th the number of a comparable american city by my own pull-it-out-of-my-ass estimate), and a lot less cars means that everyone walks a good deal more, which in turn means that the percentage of nice asses is remarkably high. seriously, you can get on any random metro train and see at least 3 girls that look like they're on their way to a playboy photoshoot. 6' hotties grow like weeds in russia, a fact that it's best not to remark upon when you're traveling with your girlfriend, even if she's one of them.
they're all dressed well too. i remember looking at russian footage a few years ago and thinking that the country was still stuck in the bad hair, bad poofy blouse 80s but being there now it was a fashionable place. oh sure, you can still find the russian guy with the ludicrously high-waisted jeans or the girl with the white leather christina applegate boots but those are not the norm. i did find it weird that no one there has caught on to the fact that when the temperature is above 25C/80F shorts are a good idea. literally not one person was wearing shorts despite the warm temperatures. i wasn't rebel enough to go against the grain so i sweated it out in my jeans the whole time.
another thing that is striking about st. petersburg is that construction cranes are as thick as trees. the russian economy must be booming because new buildings are sprouting up in every empty corner of the city and a good percentage of the old buildings are behind scaffolding getting a face lift. another economic data point is that most things cost at least as much in russia as they do in the states, from the big macs to clothes to electronics to cars to appliances. there are some things that you can get a deal on, like some groceries and vodka and bus tickets, but it's not a cheap place to go for a tourist. apparently they've caught on to the whole capitalism thing and gone whole hog for it. you can tell from the tv programs too, which are similar to american ones, right down to the commercials, which i have to say was more than a little disheartening.
i'm sure that russians don't spend as much time actually watching tv though, they need to reserve some time to walk around bus stops drinking beer in the afternoons. i didn't really get why drinking beer on street corners was a good idea, maybe most of them still live with their parents and want to get out, maybe they just didn't want to be stuck inside when the weather was so beautiful, or maybe there just aren't a lot of good pubs around. plus it doesn't get dark that far north until about 11pm so you might as well make use of the light. anyway, drinking beer on the sidewalk is so de rigueur that a whole industry of sidewalk beer gardens has sprung up to sell the beer, which just further proves that the market economy has found a home in russia.
that's the caption on a souvenir tshirt sold in moscow and st. petersburg, and not strictly speaking true. during my 2 week trip to russia i did in fact see a bear cub, playing at the end of a leash in a st. petersburg park.
anyway, the chronicles have been sparse to say the least lately but i have a burning itch to record my thoughts and observations about ksenia and my trip to russia. i will begin, naturally enough, with the trip to russia...
the trip started with a flight to philadelphia, whose airport is very non-descript apart from the ben franklin fascination. it is hard to find any shop in the airport that doesn't have some sort of ben franklin tchotchke, and that's in addition to the ben franklin shop with nothing but. in any event, philly, whatever, never been there before but nothing particularly interesting so far.
the next leg of the journey took us to munich. that's a pretty long flight for a guy that's never been anywhere that wasn't part of north america before. the munich flight was an overnighter, so we took off late in the evening, had dinner, watched a movie, had about an hour nap and then they woke us up for breakfast. not a good flight for dieters. unfortunately it was cloudy when we arrived so i wasn't able to catch much of a glimpse of what munich is like from the air but i can tell you that the airport looks like the inside of an autoclave.
finally, the flight in to st. petersburg was relatively short, ending with a bone-jarring landing and a taxi to the terminal that was almost as long as the flight because they are repairing the main runway there. once inside the airport we had to pass the extraordinarily stern russian customs officer, who literally did not speak a word to me but seemed to xray me with his eyes. i used to think that american customs guys were dicks but they're tenderly accomodating in comparison.
and then, after collecting our bags from the impossibly small carousels, we jumped in a taxi for the rally race to ksenia's mother's flat. funny thing, most roads in russia don't seem to have any actually defined lanes. wherever you can fit a car, you will find a car. our cabbie wove between the buses and around the accidents like a champ and whatever race he was in i'm sure we won.
so after 30 hours, 3 flights and 6 meals we arrived at ksenia's mother's - just in time for dinner. it's a wonder i didn't come back 20 lbs heavier.
Hey, it's been a while, I know. But now I have some life stories that I
want to chronicle and I don't want to feel guilty for neglecting the
blog for the last many months. So let's don't judge, and carry on like
nothing ever happened.