Published: December 31st 2011November 13th 2011
The Canals of Saint Petersburg
Lovely place even if they only get 48 days of sunshine a year
This is going to be my most serious of blogs. Well, not really. But after three weeks in Russia, I feel the need to be overly stern and abrupt with people. Mother Russia may have inadvertently produced several generations of reproachable Bolsheviks. Not that that is a bad thing. As it turns out, there is something really liberating about being miserable.
I just assumed their general bad attitude came from being forced to use that grey sandpaper they call toilet tissue.
But as EdVallance
explained, Russians simply wear their genuine emotions on their sleeves. It's refreshingly honest. Why would you smile if you are forced to slog through muddy streets or snow drifts at minus 30. And why not yell at a customer if you've been on your feet for 16 hours. Still, it's a complete shock to my system. Where I come from its chin up, pip pip, jolly-o. Even on your worst day, you fake it, especially around strangers. I'm FINE,
the standard acceptable answer for almost everything in Canada, lord knows the checkout clerk isn’t interested in hearing about your murderous day.
Here in Russia, I’ve retreated into a surprisingly comfortable level of gloom. I
Our Saviour on Spilled Blood Church
The name is interesting and so is the story. I can't get over how intricate these churches are. Lovely.
enjoy the no eye contact, the non-acknowledgement of other humans, I'm curt and standoffish, I frown and stare. But it only lasts a short while. If the Russians perceive you as insane just for smiling so be it...I am a genuinely happy person - even when sick. I stop short of doing a tap dance number with jazz hands in the subways to brighten their day and settle on my neutral poker face for any necessary interactions. The natural Canadian instinct to be sunshiny remains intact. I break out into my full touristy mode.
History was never my strong suit. I can vaguely recall dusting off musty textbooks in middle school to learn about the USSR, a place so far away from my reality, I think candyland was closer. The Soviet Union was a bad place…a reasonable paranoia left over from my grandparents’ generation. I do remember having drills as a child where we hid under our desks, safe from nuclear fallout...who knew balsam wood furniture had those capabilities.
Maybe I would have paid more attention in class should we had been filled in on the kinky shenanigans those Russian Tsars, Emperors and Empresses got up to. As
Sick but Pretty
My most neutral poker face for the people of St. Petes. No Russian flu is gonna mess with my sightseeing.
the tour guides (all named Tatiana by the way) drone on and on while we check out the endless riches of the Romanov Dynasty, they throw in odd tidbits, that make you sit up and listen. Catherine the Great, who took many lovers due to a voracious sexual appetite, was rumoured to have died while having sex with a stallion. Poor little Peter II was only 15 when forced to marry his cousin, then died of smallpox right after. Empress Anna of Russia loved to play cruel practical jokes on her townspeople, she'd do things like ring the fire bells so she could watch the mad panic, a cataclysmic fire back in 1736 had already put everyone on edge. Empress Elizabeth stocked the Winter Palace with a zillion felines, making her one of those crazy cat ladies. Alexandra forced her husband Nicholas II to base all his decisions on what an illiterate Siberian named Rasputin said. Then there were all the affairs, poisonings, marriages to cousins, assassinations, illegitimate children. Reality televison has nothing on this royalty. It all came to an end after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated to the Bolsheviks, and he and his family were killed by them shortly
Seconds after I snapped this photo, the officer marched over to freak me out
after. Russia then became a socialist union with the lickable Vladimir Lenin leading the way.
Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad, or Petrograd, is awkwardly gorgeous. Peter the Great captured the area, a Swedish fortress on the Neva river, in 1703 and built his vision of a European fairytale in Russia. It could easily be mistaken for a northern Amsterdam or Venice. Today, well-dressed people stroll arm and arm along the endless canals giving the illusion of grandeur. If I ever do get the ridiculous notion to get married, I think I've located my honeymoon locale. I picture my future husband and I on the canal walkways, stopping in at the endless jazz bars to shake off the chill, sip expensive spirits before donning our best winter wear to brave a boat ride out on the open waters of the Neva to watch the nightly traffic traverse the waterways. I love it here.
Unlike Moscow, no one in Saint Petersburg speaks English, but everyone moonlights as a taxi driver. Here you just stand on a road and wave your hand discreetly at oncoming traffic until someone veers off to pull over. I put on my most miserable face so I'm
Amsterdam or Saint Petes?
Look very similar don't they? I loved the canal streets
more authentic. After a brief exchange of touristy pantomime to explain where you want to go, and some scribbling to determine the fare, you hop in and they take you to where you want to go. I’m delighted...but please don't tell my Mum I got into cars with strangers.
...And if you think I managed to go without one of my infamous visits to the local hospital, you'd be wrong.
While in Moscow, I picked up a nasty flu which mutated into something really horrible by Saint Petersburg. After days of coughing up various chewy things, it got to the point where I could barely take a breath. Ugh was I, when I finally dialled the front desk to summons a doctor. Instead, an ambulance arrives to collect me to take me to Russian Hospital number 34. I protest weakly, the hotel receptionist did her best situational translating, but the attendants suggested I had pneumonia. I was shoved into a tiny van with the siren and lights full on, swerving in and out of traffic for no reason.
We arrive at Russian Hospital number 34, and I walk onto the set of "One Flew Over the Cuckoos
Main Street St. Petes
Easy to navigate and get around with signs in English.
Nest." A non-descript sanatorium with cats patrolling the hallways, old babushkas with purple hair motioning for me to sit down in what might be a waiting room with that rustic peeling paint, while they peruse my documentation, it is colder inside than out. I'm not expecting anyone to speak English, and I watch carefully as nurse Ratchet takes my temperature, blood pressure and other vitals, archaic devices with suction cups leave circle hickies all over my chest and arms. After waiting an extraordinary long time in a hallway which is truly outdoors, only a clear plastic tarp blowing in the breeze separates us from a small courtyard full of weeds. I ask, and am told, no X-rays until Monday. It's Thursday. I have no idea why.
They finally bring a Doctor by...or a 15 year old girl with a white lab coat...I'm not entirely sure. But she can speak some English and therefore tells me I need to be admitted. I ask why I can't get an X-ray to confirm I have pneumonia, she says they don't have an X-ray machine here.
Honestly, I am so exhausted from what has transpired in the past hour, I just need
Australians apparently have the gifted talent of touching their tongues to their noses, haven't met one yet that can't.
to lie down even for a minute, so I hesitantly agree and sign something. I am taken up to the 5th floor, and ushered into a room where women my age in various states of sickness are lying on sallow army cots with grey blankets moaning, the pillows are stained slime yellow and the windows broken open. My roommates eye me with indifference until one of them says something to me in the form of question. Once they realize I'm a foreigner, the mood changes. I decide to close my eyes and ignore them. Before I know it, I have drifted off.
I startle awake a few minutes later to feel someone removing my coat from behind my head. I'm being robbed. The women in my room have already ransacked my daypack and are dolling out items. I go Jackie Chan on their asses. I yell, shove and wrestle all my stuff back, someone is actually wearing my iPod. The nurses try to stop me as I burst through the winged doors. They chase me as I march down the hall in the direction I think I came from. My lungs scream as I descend the fifteen sets of
Summer Palace Park by the Canal
Not much to look at this time of year, but still eerily beautiful.
broken stairs to get to an exit, and as I push through the plastic sheets, I find myself out on the cold street, alone. I have no idea where I am.
Breathing has becoming a real chore now, I walk about three steps before I am forced to stop to catch my breath. I make it to a busy intersection and hold out my hand. I must have looked adequately miserable because someone pulls over right away to give me ride. I find the card that shows the name of my hotel, and the guy nods. I don't care how much he wants, we don't negotiate. He ends up asking for the equivalent of $1.50 to take me across town in the horrific rush hour, but when I look in my wallet, it is empty. He looks baffled as I tear up. He shrugs and reaches across me to open the passenger door. Sir, I don't know who you are, but I am eternally indebted.
Back in my room I'm coughing up blood, so I call my insurance company. They can't believe I went to Russian Hospital number 34. I am instructed to go immediately to the International
City of Bridges
The waterways were an interesting way to see the city
Clinic on the Moira canal, where there I get my X-rays, blood, urine and diagnosis all within the hour. The Norwegian doctor struggles to speak English to me under a paper mask, he tells me I have a typical Russian virus, highly contagious but manageable. I lean in as he starts to write down his prescription on a plain piece of paper.
"You have vodka in room?" He enquires.
"Da." I say the only Russian word I know.
He looks at me like I'm absurd. What can I say, even sick I can’t resist.
"Then you go back to hotel, and take three glasses of vodka, lie down for sleep. When you wake, you take three more glasses of vodka, go to sleep. When you wake, you will be well."
I stare at the paper for a second. Seriously?
He looks annoyed but nods.
I do as prescribed...and what do you know, I am feeling fantastic the next morning. Screw you Nyquil.
The following days I take on Saint Petersburg like an invading German. There are so many palaces and cathedrals left to see, and I am in historical
The Aurora Cruiser parked on the Neva
I took this picture for me Dad, a huge WWI buff.
heaven. The Hermitage alone is over seven hours of wandering through endless rooms of extravagance, me and flocks of cruise ship patrons snap pictures of all the beautiful relics and sights. I learn about Leningrad and its gruesome history. I knew that beyond the touristy façade of the Prospekts something ugly lurks. I like ugly. In 1941, the Germans managed to encircle the city with the help of the Finnish, cutting off supply routes. As a result, a million people died during the 872 day siege. It was brutal. Not only did they have to suffer through temperatures of minus 30C, there were reports of cannibalism after all the rats, birds, cats and dogs had been consumed, diseases such as typhus swooped in to take care of the rest. No wonder why the Russians are so proud of kicking the Germans ass at Stalingrad.
Police are everywhere. I've been warned about intimidation and corruption so I do my best not to tangle, unfortunately, I'm not as discreet as I think I am, and while walking down Nevsky Prospekt, I photo a group of officers milling about. One of them sees me and stomps over demanding to see my camera.
Best Advice I Ever Got
The Dr said. take 3 shots of vodka and call me in the morning.
I reluctantly hand it over, he glares and mutters before he starts to snicker, saying something very inappropriate over his shoulder towards his pals, which garnishes a hearty laugh. He winks at me and hands back my camera. When I looked at the picture in question, I realize I'd snapped a photo of his buddy's arse. Nice.
Nearing the end of my trip, and I’ve begun to highly suspect I may have been Russian in a previous life. Why else would I like the song Katyusha so much. There is something about Mother Russia that really appeals to me. I already know I have an extraordinarily high tolerance for vodka and I'm partially fond of the name Tatiana. And who else would proudly claim they ate Borscht twelve days in a row. The word No'zstrovia rolls off my tongue like an old friend and the best part, I've got my appetite back and I'm eating like a Tsar.
Some of The Australians are still in Saint Petersburg, and have lifted their self-imposed quarantine of me. So we meet up at an authentic Pushkin restaurant to enjoy an evening of song, atmosphere and food. Bring on the platters of
Yellow Government Building
I'm unfortunately attracted to yellow buildings. So this picture is more for me than for you.
headcheese and salted pork fat, marinated mushrooms, with assortments of sausages and meats. Blinis stuffed with caviar or tuorog (cottage cheese). The main course was either chicken Kiev or beef stroganoff. Not to mention plenty of toasts in between. By the time we take a chilly boat ride out onto the Neva we are all shit faced. Probably not a good idea...but hey, I was only following doctors orders.
No’zstrovia! На здоровье!
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