Nights are White and Time is Right
Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
45Trip End Aug 01, 2006
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Of course Natasha insisted that we were too skinny (a 2-week Everest battle and 2 further weeks of native Indian and Pakistani food meant for locals and all that then comes with it for foreigners will do that to a guy) and so we had some good ol ' KFC (right across from the McDonald's, but surprisingly no Starbucks) before heading out on a tour of the city. We gazed upon the beautiful golden dome of St. Isaac's, the ornamental facade of the Hermitage, gravity-defying statues and fountains scattered about the city in restful public parks, the frenetic artwork on the Church of the Bleeding Savior, and finally got our faces stuffed again with ice cream by Natasha. Walking back to the car, we ran into probably the 15th wedding party between Moscow and SPB that we'd seen in the past few days, out taking photos. There are 4 or 5 spots in every Russian city where, when you get married, you absolutely must capture the moment in front of. Don't ask why, just say "Cheese!" ... or, even better, start chanting "Goika !" which means "bitter" in Russian and requires the newlyweds to kiss on the spot to make it sweet again. We dropped off our big packs at Lonya's spare apartment in the city, where we'd be staying for most of our time there, and took just an overnight bag each out to his country house 20km out of town.
Lonya is Mama's only sibling, about 6 years older, and had only come to the US once, for Jenny's Bat Mitzvah , so I didn't know him well or much about him. During the few days I'd spent with him in Kiev in Fall 2005, however, I grew to really like his style and thought him quite the badass . We had had many a fun evening over a bottle of honey and red pepper vodka, not much understanding each other fully in language but completely in family love. In fact, owing to my imagination and propensity to amuse myself with exaggerated stories (except, of course, for this entire travelogue where, dear reader, you can be assured that everything is reported 100% faithfully as it happened, just don't ask Ryan to confirm or deny), I had developed a theory that Uncle Lonya was actually SPB 's premier mob boss, who owns a "construction firm" that never actually builds anything and only buys concrete for one purpose, and would have no qualms offing Ryan if he didn't like the borscht, after all Ryan is a dear friend but not part of the family. My illusions took a bit of a hit when he came to collect us at the train station looking more like Joe Suburb than Tony Soprano, with a fishing vest and polo shirt replacing the leather jacket and track pants that I had been expecting, and were thoroughly crushed when we packed into his economy station wagon and pulled into his quaint country spread. Don't get me wrong, Lonya has a sweet pad and a very large yard and garden with even a small cute fish pond on the grounds, and a big modern house, but I just didn't see where exactly were the bodies would be buried or where his gang of toughs would hold their "business meetings". Or was that the whole point of the ruse ... hmmm ...
Actually a larger shock than my uncle not actually being an an underworld crime Kingpin was, during our tour of his very un -Mafia-like herb garden, having Ryan and I try a piece of a green leafy vegetable called "schavel " ("sorrel" in English) and Ryan actually really liking it, to the point of craving! Though Ryan had made huge strides in his food diversification on this trip, and his plate could every now and again be seen voluntarily speckled with bits of red and green things that once grew beyond crushed red peppers or oregano on his pizza, he still was by no means a veggie-loving kinda guy. However, lo and behold, he began downing the first of what would be 3 generous bags of the stuff during our time there as we came in for dinner with Lonya , Natasha, Natasha's mama, and their crazy cat Sima , who we were not supposed to photograph for superstitious reasons. Wanting to contribute to show our appreciation for the lovely hospitality, and demonstrating once again that understanding new technology once over the age of 45 is a universal struggle (no offense of course to my elders, as I am fully aware that I'll need to enlist the help of my future children in order to just turn on my holographic quantum hyperhovercar ), we taught them how to free their pictures from the greedy grip of their digital camera that had "eaten them and wouldn't let go". We even started recording Natasha's audiotaped vocal performances into digital format before watching soccer until bed, apparently falling asleep in my clothes on the sheets "like a barbarian" which made Mama mad later until I started speculating that it must have just been the way I'd been brought up.
By lucky coincidence, Natasha was to be performing the next day in the city and invited us to watch. My aunt is a professional singer (apparently rather successfully and for a while, I saw a framed professional poster in their house advertising one of her shows and featuring a picture of her glorious 80s acid-washed jeans stage look back then) and was to be performing some traditional music this time with a folk troupe. The major problem was of course that the show would be falling at the exact time of the US's first World Cup match against the Czech Republic that we'd been discussing in depth for weeks. We tried unsuccessfully to set up a scheme to record it, but at the end of the day family is family (plus the still-lingering suspicion that Lonya might order up a hit on Ryan should we spurn the invitation) and Natasha's performance ended up being much more interesting and inspirational than the 0-3 stinker handed in by our boys anyhow. Despite the Chileans hoarding all the refreshments during intermission, Natasha's solo after the break made it all worthwhile and afterwards we were content to catch more soccer and another DVD copy of "Da Vinci Code" we'd found that, not being in Moscow, actually rabotayet .
When backpacking, you need to travel light, and thus each of my few shirts served multiple purposes. My brown Rolling Stones t-shirt, in addition to allowing me to be the biggest musical poseur ever in the way that I bought it, was going to be our ticket into the Stones concert scheduled to take place in SPB during the middle of our stay there. Of course, as ought to have been completely unexpected yet not at all surprising, Keith Richards had just a week earlier fallen out of a coconut tree in Fiji and his emergency brain surgery rendered our best-laid plans to sneak in posing as crew members null, void, and awry.
Deciding that in lieu we would spend the day getting to know some local Russians, I texted up on Ryan's Razr the Couchsurfing twins Masha and Dasha (oh cruel cruel parental naming scheme, as dad was Sasha and mom was Natasha, I think the dog's name might have been Kasha ) who actually ended up being born on the exact same day, year, and- if time zones are considered- at exactly the same time as me! We ended up with the interesting arrangement where, for each to practice the other's language, I'd speak Russian to them and they'd speak English back, though their second-language skills were far superior, having spent several summers working in the USA while they could (Russia becomes increasingly unwilling to send young women abroad as they approach marrying age, fearing they'll not return). Time flew and what seemed to be still yet early ended up being actually quite late due to the discombobulating effects of Belie Nochi , and we caught the very last Metro home. Belie Nochi , the famous "White Nights" of Russia is an apt description for that high summer time of year culminating in the solstice, where due to the city's very high latitude and tilt of the Earth, the sky never does turn black, affording only a few hours of twilight at the darkest period from 3-5 AM. This is great for staying up as your body is fooled into thinking it's mid-afternoon all the time, and great for having fun all the time, but can wreak quite the havoc on your body's usual way of perceiving the day and judging time, as we'd find out more. I just liked it because I could wear my cateye -scratched $5 swap meet aviators all the time.
I awoke quite excited the next morning for it was the day when my parents were due to arrive for a 2-day stay from the Scandinavian and Russian cruise they were taking to coincide with our time in SPB . I learned a lot about Mama's family during our Kiev visit together as Mama, from whom I take many of my own personality traits, is more than happy to make fun of you in a bitingly good-natured way but doesn't divulge as many stories about her past experiences. It was so wonderful to see Mama and Papa again after 3 months' time and we hung out in the apartment for a while catching up with her college friend whose last name means Freedom ("Mama, you went to college in SPB ? How did I not know that?!" "Meeesha , you do not leeesten ."). Papa and Lonya helped us book our train tickets for later back to Moscow (one day later than planned ... we were gonna give Lenin and the Armory one more crack) and we all piled in the car to get back to Lonya's for a great fun family dinner. Natasha graduates to being able to burn her own CDs and we played the Russian card game Kinga were Mama, as usual, lost by about a million points because the rest of us were "just lucky". The 'rents would be heading to Peterhof , Peter the Great's answer to Versailles, with their cruise group the next day and we decided to try to meet them there as well. Pissing the time away under Mama and Papa arrived there, we found them just outside the gates and, to play a little joke, handed Mama the 95 ruble ($3) bottle of champagne I'd bought, telling her it was an expensive present we'd gotten in honor or their arrival. Either touched or thirsty (Mama does love her vino), she stubbornly clung onto it while touring the inside of the palace as the guards kept trying to take it away as forcefully as was her insistence that they'd do no such thing.
Sadly, after a little while longer gawking at the amazing gilded fountains and strolling by the pond that inspired "Swan Lake", it was time to say ta for now to my parents as they were off to Helsinki, their next port of call. Wonderful to have spent time again with loving family even if my dorky little sister couldn't be there as well, it was a downer to have such a short span with them. At least it'd not be too much longer before seeing them again, at least almost certainly not enough time for them to change all the locks at home.
After a brisk walk out to the edge of the canal pier to see what I swear was Finland, we got back to town to meet the twins again and their friends to celebrate Ryan's birthday (he's a Libra). Pulling a major coup by getting into the club in my flip flops and Stones shirt, we then pulled a raucous all-nighter , as the metro closes at midnight, the bridges go up from 1-4 AM, and the White Nights keep you going as long as you need. We had an early go around the park and coffee shop before hopping on the second metro after opening time at 6 to get back just in time for a legend'ry McD's breakfast.
Passed out until later than day (though not too late, the perpetual sunshine assures that), we got back to town to catch the US-Italy game and cheered on the boys with 2 Russian pro squash players who took our side. I felt such a pride for the way that we played and such a disgust for the dirty and unsportsmanlike tactics of the Azzuri that day, and came away at least satisfied with the tie (that should've been a win!) and ready for another rockstar White Night. We met up this time with CSer Mariana (the twins couldn't handle 2 in a row) and missed the bridges and metro again but it was no problem because I got to see my first ever drullet (dreadlock mullet) and hung out with some very very drunk and friendly Russian military academy graduated on their celebration night. One of them wanted to meet up with Ryan the next day to exchange his military hat for Ryan's Cal cap (both of whom might have to be respectively court-martialed should the exchange have taken place) and the other treated us to an awkward picnic with no food until the metro opened.
Proving that SPB can hang with Moscow after the going-bad-sausage omelet that I whipped up, both the Hermitage and the Vodka Museum ne rabotayet the next day and all that was left to do was watch the games, say goodbye to the twins, meet up with Lonya to say our farewells, and get taken to the station (where, to my great glee, Lonya got down with his badass self and almost busted a guy in the cops who was annoying him to move his car). We caught some more pizza and soccer before our train back down to Moscow with the creepy military guy all sorts of inappropriate to finally soothe us to sleep.
Moral of the Story: OK, my uncle's probably not in the mob. But he could still totally beat up your uncle.