Oh, For Pete's Sake!

Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
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Trip End Nov 04, 2006


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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Few things are as instantly evocative as a particular smell. Which is why the next time our noses picks up the pungent, sickly-sweet smell of partially metabolized alcohol, we will be instantly transported in our minds' eye back to our all-night bus ride from Tallinn, Estonia to St. Petersburg, Russia.

We had no sooner found our assigned seats on the nightly graveyard-shift bus, when two 20-something guys lurched into the seats behind us. Zzzssip! Two 20 oz, cans of high alcohol beer were opened (certainly not their first of the evening). Soon after, the snoring and belching began. As if on cue, the man right next to Justin, who had been noisily slurping something from a bottle, joined the symphony of spent fuel; his wife staring straight ahead, in indignation (in resignation?). And so across northwestern Russia we went; probably there was a noxious cloud of alimentary tract gases billowing behind us.

At 2AM, we pulled into the border-crossing complex and white forms were passed out to the very few foreign passengers.

We squinted, trying to make out the text, but to no avail: the forms were only in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, which resembles the last, most challenging line, of any vision test you've taken. No English, no French, nothing remotely familiar that would allow one to make the cognative leap to English from another Romance language.... "Hmmm...'Nom' might mean 'Name'?"

Justin timidly asked around the bus, "English?" Finally, a Russian teen (who had not been drinking) agreed to help out. Suddenly, four Britons came out of the woodwork, ferverently clutching their forms. Soon we all became like a group of school children (regressed perhaps?), copying the answers from one another. However, we breezed through immigration as well as, quite unexpectedly, through customs where we were just waved through. The fact that we were not given custom's forms caused Justin some concern as our guidebook was adamete that not having such form upon exiting the country would mean big fines. [But he was releaved to find out, a few days later, that this inefficient, USSR-era regulation had been phased out several months ago...clearly, he had seen too many movies about Russia's legal system and being sent to Siberia!]

We arrived at Balticsky station at 6AM where the frat party continued: everywhere people were drinking beer in this enormous, slightly Orwellian granite structure. We sat in vain waiting for the man from the firm that had arranged our homestay. No dice. Finally, at 7:45AM (after fruitless attempts to phone), we descended into the St. Petersburg subway, which along with Moscow's, is the deepest in the world.

Thankfully Jamie had taken the time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet (thanks for the suggestion Matt), which allowed us to sound out the names of the stops and match them to our map in the Roman alphabet (though her skill certainly didn't help us with the meaning!).

An interlude on illiteracy: Many times this year we have found ourselves at a loss, a bit hamstrung by our unfamiliarity with the main language of the country we are in. From reading a menu to understanding what a brochure or billboard says, the meaning of things was often foggy, but that was okay. We either had a friend or relative who could translate, or we relied on the similarities of English to other Romance languages (or memories of 8th-grade French or Spanish) to get the gist of the sentence. But looking at a bunch of squiggles that we were unable to read much less comprehend was quite humbling. Quickly, we gained an appreciation for illiteracy in our own society, and the isolation and disempowerment that it causes for the 23% adult Americans who are illiterate.

We finally arrived, packs and all, at the home of Ms. Vera Sinelnikova.
Vera is an English professor at the St. Petersburg Railway University (which, we learned, opened ten years before the first trains came to Russia), and she has been hosting travelers since 1990, when the government first allowed it. We soon met Dimeter, the man who was suppose to meet us at the bus station. He was right up front with us: he had mixed up the date of our arrival; he was actually at his other job as an engineer.

For us, his admission and his desire to own up to the mistake was quite refreshing since, in some of the other countries we have visited, we would have been told some stupid excuse or actually been blamed for the mishap.

Thus, between Vera and Dimeter, we were introduced to Russia's shadow economy, where people who are at the apex of their chosen professional careers are forced to have second less interesting jobs in order to survive in one of Europe's most expensive cities.

All those Western news reports about Russia's nouveau riche certainly don't mention the folks working as doctors, scientists, civil servants and teachers: their salaries have stagnated while the cost of living, especially in urban Russia, has skyrocketed in the past ten years.

We learned quite a bit about post-communist Russia from Vera (who speaks exactly like "Pat" from the TV show "Saturday Night Live" minus the androdgyny). After the government of the USSR fell, she told us, people were offered the chance to buy the apartments that they lived in from the government, at highly discounted (not market) prices, which clearly is the only way she can still live in her tiny one-bedroom Admiralty-district apartment in central St. Petersburg (to which she was assigned in 1980). She said that flats like hers are easily going for $300K with rents for any city apartment at $4000 - $7000 per month.

After spending one day on our own roaming the city, we embarked on a fascinating organized walking tour of the city. Now, knowing our views of guided tours, you might think that we had gone soft after ten months on the road, ready to be led around like cattle by a shrill guide waving an orange flag. But this tour was billed as (and indeed turned out to be) quite different.

Dmity Ganpolsky took us on a five hour tour of "everyday" life in St. Petersburg. Fluent in five languages and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of this city, this St. Petersburg native took us around run-down apartment blocs and farmers markets in regular neighborhoods. We learned that the city was built on a swamp by Tsar Peter I (the Great), which explains the extreme depth of the subway system (presumably, this was intended to double as bomb shelters during the Cold War). Peter's simple, but maniacal solution to St. Petersburg's geological problem was to require everybody that came to the city to trade or visit to bring a rock to help firm up the ground.

We also learned about more recent Russian history. Both Vera and Dmitry talked about Russian society after the fall of communism. As was the case with people in the Eastern Bloc countries we've visited, Russians were ecstatic, at first. But after the euphoria wore off, Vera described a profound sense of insecurity, especially amongst adults her age (we'd guess mid-40's). We don't want to overstate this but Vera, especially, told us of her sense of apprehension about life ten years ago. During communism, people had enough basic necessities. They had money, but there was nothing to spend money on. After 1991, when the Wall fell, the Russian was quickly exposed to the West's material goods, which they lacked. Along with this economic disparity, Russians no longer had a "father-figure" government to care for them. The training-wheels for life were off and future was uncertain.

Dimetry, on the other hand, talked about the excitement he and other 20-somethings felt. The 90's was the time to come of age for younger Russians. He described how the Soviets ruled through fear, and perhaps more effectively, by making people feel dependent on the State. Thus, for the average Russian, post-USSR Russia was not just about changing governments, it also meant changing many, if not all, of the prisms through which life was viewed.

From what we could see in St. Petersburg, at least, many Russians are nowadays viewing life with a zeal for consumption that would make Zsa Zsa Gabor blush. We spent an afternoon near the Church of Spilt Blood watching newly married couples taking photographs with this famous place of worship as a scenic backdrop. There were lots of limos, fancy clothes, BMW's, and silly amounts of champagne. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come at the wedding celebration, the wedding parties would hold hands, jump in the air, and shout "vodka!!"

Being dressed fashionably was not limited to weddings. More than in any other country we've been to, Russians seemed intent on being
dressed to the 9's. Everybody seems attired in the latest avante gard duds; we just shuffled along sheepishly in our travel clothes, threadworn after ten months.

St. Petersburg must be a podiatrist's dream - every woman seems shod in stilleto heels that could only come from the Marquis De Sade collection.

We're sure that all this glitz is indicative of at least one post-USSR change: now there was lots of money to be made. Though much (most?) of it is done legitimately, in the 90's there was explosion in organized crime as various gangs battled it out. Dmitry Ganpolsky confirmed what many Western magazines have said about Russia's current leader: the election of Vladamir Putin was all about putting Russia in "firm hands" and controlling crime, especially after the proverbial frat party presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

Of course, perception plays a role here, too. Justin felt much less nervous about our personal security during our week in St, Petersburg than he did, ten years ago, during his winter scamper around Moscow. 1997 was the height of Russia's crime wave. It was exhausting to continually avoid drunk (and cold!) derelicts who approached him and friend Jason (with the intent of latching onto their wallets).

On the subject of public intoxication, we quickly learned that drinking beer in public, even at 7AM, is way things are done in Russia, for both sexes. Beer is seen as innocuous as Coca-Cola. Although this works for many individuals, works to wreck havoc on the Russian life expectancy, which has been steadily falling in the last few years and is now 59 for men (for comparison, it is 73 in the USA). The chief factors behind the poor figure are alcohol abuse, psychological stress caused by economic uncertainty, and widespread smoking, amongst others.

Yes, alcoholism is an oft cited problem in Russia, but one of delightful things about travel is how one's stereotypes can be shattered. Thus we were unprepared for how friendly and helpful St. Petersburgers were to us. We have to admit that we had been conditioned by American TV commercials in the 80's featuring dour and grumpy Russians. But from the woman who helped us use the archaic public phones to the lady that stopped us on the street and offered assistance (in Russian), people were quite hospitable.

This graciousness extended to restaurants as well. We could see why guidebooks call dining in St. Petersburg an "experience." Several of the Russian restaurants had wonderful decor and were successful in trying to be evocative of some exotic atmosphere. Unfortunetely, the restaurants we picked for Russian cuisine was just "okay" - we heard that the best food was that that was made by Russian moms in homes. We were more successful with Azerbijiani and Georgian fare.

But our appreciation of Russian culture wasn't limited to our stomachs. On Sunday morning, Vera urged us to pop into the Russian Orthodox service at St. Nicholas'. She said that our lack of suitable clothes and being late for services wouldn't matter, and she was right. We crept into the sanctuary of the church and were directed to the "tourist" section which was behind the section of the worshippers, as it should be. We were immeadiately struck by three things: the beautiful chanting and singing coming from the choir, that there were no chairs, so every one stood, and how unengaged the congregation and the priests seemed to be with each other. The priests focused on their rituals while the worshippers were praying while (painfully) kneeling and crossing themselves repeatedly. [We did see one worshipper who dashed out of the sanctuary to take cell phone calls]. Though the participants seemed isolated from one another, it was a strongly spiritual scene. But in need of both translation and narration, we decided to leave.

However, one does not need fluency in Russian in order to appreciate the highlights of Western art. We devoted one day to seeing the State Hermitage - the Tsars' palaces - which holds an unrivaled collection of Western art (that may well surpass that held by the Louvre in Paris). To gain such a haul, numbering over three million pieces (of which only 15% are on display at once), one needs to start out with absolute power and an unquenchable need to collect art, like that held by Catherine the Great, who traveled around Europe buying paintings by De Vinci, Rembrandt and others. To that, add more-than-a-sprinkle of paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Matisse, and other art A-listers that had been captured by the Red Army in Germany in 1945 (which, in turn, had been stolen by the Nazis from private -often Jewish- collections). What comes out of the oven is one of the main reasons Justin wanted to come to St. Petersburg. For her part, Jamie was most interested in seeing the opulent Tsars' living quarters and furnishings. She later declared them to look so uncomfortable that she would not adopt the style for decorating our own home.

The night before visiting the Hermitage, we poured over a layout of the museum and plotted a route, not only to ensure we saw our favorites, but also so that we wouldn't we swamped by large tour groups from cruise ships that were in port. Justin was so serious about not missing a thing, or wasting a minute, that he set the alarm so we would be at the Hermitage right when they opened.
And we were successful in seeing what we wanted to see in six hours one day.

What to say about the Hermitage? As for the art, it was great to actually see pieces we had studied in art history classes. As for the building, clearly, the Tsars were not worried about being viewed as excessive! To them, it was a virtue.

But as we wandered around viewing gold brocaide this" and marbled "that," we couldn't help but think that maybe the Russian Bolsheviks (the communists) perhaps can't be demonized for getting rid of Tsar Nicholas II and bringing communism to Russia. Certainly, this policy of enforced "equality" created a huge amount of human suffering and millions of deaths across Russia as well as nearby areas that were unwillingly included in the Soviet Union. But seeing the huge wealth gap - in the form of the Hermitage palace - between the rich and the other 98% of Russians made the Communists point abundantly clear to us.

Our last night in Russia ended on a sad note. In what started out as a pleasant discussion with Vera, she made it clear how much she hated Jews. Now hearing this in Eastern Europe, where the Jewish population was decimated during WWII, and where antisemitism still exists was not surprising for us to hear. What hit hard in the gut was to hear such hatred said directly to our faces (this was different than hearing it on TV or reading it in the newspaper). It made hatred and prejudice that is espoused by a variety of groups all over the world so real to us. If Vera had learned at that moment that Jamie is a Jew, would she have turned her amicable hospitality into something different? We will never know, nor did we want to find out. Her flat out prejudice - dislike of a person only because of the group they might belong to - and ignorance made us sad. Granted, we do no know what caused Vera to make that statement - either upbringing or through a personal experience - but it is a reality in this world that we must face. For us, through this journey, many of our own stereotypes of nations and peoples have been shattered. For instance, St. Petersburg turned out not to have the alcoholic haze that we'd first feared.

This year we have been in natural places that make you feel puny. St. Petersburg. is a city that makes you feel tiny in comparison to the massive granite buildings. In comparison to walkable compact blocks in Portland, OR, it is exhausting to get from "A" to "B" in this town, especially when you add in the mindwarping effect that comes with deciphering Cyrillic street signs. It was hard not to walk around St. Petersburg with our mouths agape in awe of what imagination, determination, human labor and money can create.

So, it was with fulfilment of seeing St. Petersburg, and utter exhaustion of five days of non-stop sight seeing that we took the metro and then a bus to the airport for our AeroSvit flight to Budapest, Hungary.

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Hungary
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It is getting harder to describe how one European city differs from the next. The architecture is similar amongst the cities, and the churches all run together, but the energy and the people are different in each.

Hungary has a laid back, easy-going air. We felt relaxed after the enormity of St. Petersburg.

Before we arrived, we had arranged a stay in a room in someone's home. This is an option that allows us to avoid the hostle scene (remember the vomiting roommate?), and is also cheaper. We lucked out. Mrs. Nesmeth lived right in the heart of the Pest side of the city in an early-20th century apartment full of character - like decorative iron work on the stair case and fancy touches in the marble floor. In addition, we had a great view of the Danube River out of our window. Mrs. Nesmeth, in her mid-seventies was the sweetest woman who only spoke a handful of words in English. Over our five days there, she made us feel at home and even did our laundry for us! In this part of southern Europe, renting a room in someone's home is a cheap option, and a good way to meet and interact with regular folks (although the latter is definitely dependent on language!).

Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to learn about Hungarian life from the locals, as we didn't have the opportunity socialize with anyone. Rather, our time in Budapest was filled with some experiences that will stick out as highlights of our time in Europe (so far).

As we had read in the guide books, Hungarians like a reason to celebrate and have a festival. We arrived in Budapest at the perfect time, during a festival that mainly featured Hungarian wines. Unfortunately, we Americans are deprived of the opportunity to buy these fine wines as they are only exported across Europe and to Japan. But, Hungary is known for its wines - so we opted to see what the fuss was about. The wine festival was in a perfect setting, on the castle grounds on the hills of Buda. We paid our entry fee, received a wine glass, some tasting tickets and a handy-dandy neck-hanging pouch to hold your glass. We won't bore you with descriptions of the fruitiness and earthiness of wines (because we would only be making that stuff up as we are no experts), but the wine was good. The more you drank, the better it tasted too! Highlights were Bullsblood wines from the region around the Hungarian town of Eger as well as Pinot Noirs that were just as good as those Oregon produces and some nice crisp whites from Toakaj. Mix the wines with some nice paprika kilbalsa and polka-esque music, and one fine evening was produced. To top it all off, it was a warm crystal clear night where the full moon reflected off all those wine glasses being held out for a "pour."

The other truly Hungarian experience that we had and was pure relaxation was a nice long soak in the thermal baths. Budapest is built over thermal waters and thanks to the Turks who ruled here for a while, the Hungarian baths became part of the culture. There are no pretenses here, every shape, size and age fits into a bathing suit and takes to the muscle-soothing waters. It is such a relaxed and happy atmosphere, you feel as if you are soaking your stress away.

Unfortunately, not all of our experiences in Budapest were so enjoyable. Sometimes in life innocent mistakes get made and the consequences seem unfair - but you have to take the punishment anyway. We made one such mistake in Budapest.

After helping a group of tourists buy metro tickets through the automated machine and missing the train (aren't we such martyers?...), we bought our own tickets for a metro ride across town. At the stop we alighted, the ticket checker was there and informed us that we had purchased the wrong type of ticket and we would have to pay a fine. There was no compassion for an innocent error and we were out $25 - the cost of one night's accommodations. We will admit to you that at the press of a button all the instructions on the machine change to English. There was no excuse except not paying attention to which button was being pressed. In paying the fine, we received a pass to ride that one metro line until midnight of that day. We opted not to spend the rest of the day riding that line just to get our money's worth and walked back to our room with our heads hung low feeling frustrated. I guess one could chalk this up to the fact that through out this year, you are bound to lose money one way or another through cons, thieves or officials who are looking to catch the tourist who is stupid enough to buy the wrong ticket (that would be us!). Maybe it could have been worse, at least we weren't the lost tourists who didn't get off at the last stop on the metro and ended up riding into the depths of the station where they turn the cars around - that provided quite a comedic scene for the locals who got in a good laugh.

After a few days roaming around lovely Budapest, we took a train to Eger, as we said, the city known for Bulls Blood wine in the northern region of Hungary. This town of 57,000 boasts cellars (actually in caves) where one can while away the day sipping local wines. On our way to the tourist information office, a nice woman with a baby stopped us and asked if we needed a room. We sure did, and for $20 that night, we had our own studio apartment. We explored the town in about an hour and then wandered into the valley to taste some wines.

There we met a group of tourists - a group of British friends who walk together in Sussex, England. Throughout our trip, we always find that we have a great time with travelers from Great Britain - they usually have a wonderful, wry, occaisionally self-depricating senses of humor.

The following day, we were back on the train, headed to southern Transdanubia to the town of Pecs. This time our housing options didn't work out to our favor, and we ended up in an apartment of a brusk, chain-smoking, Hungarian woman on the outskirts of town. At least the price was right and we got some exercise in while walking to all the sights. We read that an average Hungarian eats a pound of lard a week, so walking is a good thing to do!

We spent our time in Pecs wandering around (what we do best) and taking advantage of some really cheap internet (i.e. working on this blog). We also partook in the first day of yet another festival in Hungary.

From Southern Hungary, we jump into the Balkans - the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo and the charms it posseses await our discovery!
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