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Dancing in Russia

One of the goals of this trip was to dance as many places as I can, especially considering I’m doing a weekend-long Lindy camp at the end of it, and I can’t do that kind of hardcore event after spending 3 months getting rusty. But it also gives me something specific to aim for in a few places, and an environment where, while still potentially intimidating, I feel pretty comfortable as far as social situations go. Particularly as it’s perfectly acceptable to not really talk much if you don’t feel like it. All you really have to do is dance! That I can do.

St Petersburg was my first time ever dancing away from Edinburgh, and the first time with no one I knew or recognised around for support. It was definitely a little scary to walk in there. But by the end of the night, I realised I just have to keep telling myself I’m never going to see these people again so just go all in. It’s quite freeing to your dancing to know that whatever you screw up (or nail!), no one knows who you are anyway, so you can learn a lot and have fun with it. I just tried to dance with as many different leads at as many different levels as I could. And everyone in both places was super friendly.

The space in St Petersburg was amazing. It was in the Freedom Palace, and it was an old high-ceilinged room with velvet curtains and a friggin’ canopy around the bar. The floor itself was a bit meh but it didn’t matter. The atmosphere was good and so was the music.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

In the Freedom Palace with Summertime Swing.

One of the great things about this already is hearing the different music selections. I’m trying to remember some of my new favourites, but I wish I could shazaam everything so I could just have one big list of the music the rest of the world is dancing to on the regular. Some of it is the same of course – the band in Moscow played ‘Splanky’ and I immediately thought of my friend Graeme running by yelling ‘NAKED GUN THEME’, because, um, that’s what happens in Edinburgh – but even hearing different versions of the songs you’re used to (and deciding which you like better) is quite fun for a music dweeb.

The first thing I’m doing everywhere is just watching for a few songs. A, because it’s way too nerve-wracking to jump right in, and B, because I learn a lot – who I want to try to dance with, what the floorcraft is like (one place was definitely scarier than another in this respect), what everyone’s style is, who’s showing off, who’s shitting it because they’re a beginner (in contrast to me shitting it because I don’t know anyone).

Also there are some things that are comfortingly and amusingly the same everywhere. Everyone appreciates cake. The water is always a hot commodity. And you can never have quite enough windows to throw open, even in Russia when it’s -2 and snowing out.

If the room in St Petersburg was grand, the room in Moscow was totally cool in the opposite direction. It was like a secret Lindy clubhouse. Pictures of Dawn Hampton and Frankie Manning on the wall, old dance posters, dressing rooms and a wee bar. A bit speakeasy-ish, and very home-y and comfortable. You can tell it’s well-loved, and the floor was great – they don’t let any outdoor shoes in the place without plastic covers. And you’d never know the place was there from the outside.

Trying to find these places is always slightly intimidating when you’re somewhere strange. The MSDS website literally called the entrance to their space ‘very soviet looking’ and it was in a bit if an industrial park-ish area next to a shopping mall. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but it was slightly like, erm, where am I? But then you hear some jazz clarinet or Ella Fitzgerald’s voice wafting around a corner or out a window somewhere nearby and you know you’re in the right place, just follow the music.

There were some amazing dancers in Moscow, and the place was heaving. They had a live band and a super impressive cabaret the night I was there (see video playlist below) so I’m sure this meant it was probably even more crowded than usual, but it really highlighted the difference between being in a place with all your friends and being in a place where you don’t know anyone. Especially as a follow, this is super difficult. Even when you muster up the chutzpah to ask every lead in your sight line to dance, they still get snapped up crazy fast. And when you don’t have friends around, you have no guaranteed dances so it can feel like a lot of work just to get on the floor regardless of how much enthusiasm you have because NO ONE KNOWS YOU. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s teaching me to adjust my expectations accordingly (and miss my friends a whole lot).

HOWEVER. Despite the difficulty if going into a social alone, it’s absolutely worth it. I had some lovely dances with some awesome leads. I got some crazy new moves thrown at me and I was able to follow at LEAST half of them. I think the lead/follow bootcamp of Winter Swing Weekend before I left Edinburgh was incredibly helpful. And it’s a pretty big boost to realise you know how to do something well enough that you CAN hold your own in a completely different scene.

(I totally need to up my fast Lindy game though. Oh my.)

Earlier in the day I went dancing in Moscow, I’d met up with Lana, who I’d been put in touch with by Ian, a fellow Edinburgh Swing Dance Society member. She walked me around, showed me some sights (in the snow!) and took me for lunch at this Russian cafeteria-style place called My-My (pronounced ‘moo moo’). We got some sweets with the bill, and I threw mine into my bag, not really knowing exactly what it was but too full to eat any candy.

Russian tablet.

Russian tablet.

At the end of the night when I made it back to the metro sweaty, exhausted, and slightly overwhelmed, I was rummaging in my bag for SUGAR PLEASE SUGAR NOW as usual after a big dancing night, I pulled out that wee sweet from lunch. I unwrapped it to find it was more or less exactly like Scottish tablet, which was such a perfect thing, because there’s always tablet at Lindy events in Edinburgh. SUGAR FUEL. It was like Edinburgh was taking care of me from far away, and the universe was saying ‘well fucking done you for sticking with it even when you were terrified’. HOORAY FOR DANCING.

Not sure if the Chinese have their own version of tablet, but I’m definitely looking forward to dancing in Beijing, which should be my next chance in a few weeks’ time.

St Petersburg

So once I remembered that I have very little patience for (most) museums, I kicked off three months of Kate Walks Around Foreign Cities Looking At Things Til She Can Barely Stand Up and Also Eats A Lot. My two favourite travel activities!

On my first full day in St Petersburg, Elena made another incredible breakfast and then we set out to do an epic walking tour of the city. She had printed out loads of information from the interweb and she proceeded to hit me with just the right amount of facts about everything we saw all day. We walked about 15km in 7 hours. Later on when I was looking up lists of must-see things in the city, I noticed we’d seen pretty much ALL of them –  the standards and the ‘often missed’ stuff. It was pretty nice out all day too, windy but sunny with no rain, so we were lucky.

We went up on the wall at the Peter and Paul fortress and all up and down the river on both sides. Then after a pizza and wine stop we walked down the Moika embankment in the dark and saw my favourite sculpture of the day, the monument to Alexander III, DIRECTLY OPPOSITE a bizarre sculpture of a baby riding a T-Rex (because St Petersburg knew I was coming). After we saw where Elena went to university, we went to an amazing bakery (Sever) and picked out some cakes to try once we were home with massive cups of tea.

Sunday was a bit of a day off because I couldn’t walk for another 7 hours THEN dance. So we had an easy walk to see some close-by sights in the rain, bought a bunch of local chocolates, then made a tasty, traditional dinner of salted herring, potatoes and salad. Then I went to the regular Summertime Swing Sunday night social at Freedom Palace! Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but I had a lovely evening. I even got a high five from one of the guys I danced with, because ‘It’s so cool that I don’t speak much English and you don’t speak Russian but we can still dance!’ And yes, it totally IS.

(I’ll do a full post on dancing in Russia once I’ve been to the Moscow Lindy night tomorrow.)

Monday was another rainy day, and I managed to get proper soaked in the morning after going to start my visa registration. I bought some postcards and then went back to the Freedom Palace to dry off and write them, which is actually an anti-cafe where you pay for your time there instead of your drinks, then you get to have as much tea, coffee, and cookies as you like while you sit in various comfy spaces and use the wifi. It’s such a great idea! The first one was started by a dude in Moscow and now there are different ones all over Russia and popping up in some other European cities as well. I’m already trying to figure out how I can open one in Edinburgh.

In the afternoon, I went back to the Peter and Paul Fortress to go to the small museum on the history of rocket development, because SPACE! And I also went to the History of St Petersburg museum, because why not? (also it was free with my rocket ticket.) And actually it ended up being really good. I spent more time in there than I expected to, and I was last out. The guy in the coat check was giving me a good-natured hard time for it. They just had all sorts of stuff on the progression of the city and whole rooms on travel and cinema and kitchens and everything else you could possibly want to know about what things were like in the city for the past 300 years. But the thing that made me wish I had more time was this crazy little video in one of the rooms on how they raised the Aleksandrovskaya column in Palace Square. It was all in Russian, but it was animated in that weird Monty-Python-esque style of like, moving cut out illustrations on static backgrounds with matching ridiculous sound effects. I really wanted to watch the whole thing but there wasn’t enough time. It was hilarious AND informative.

There was an hour between museum closing time and when I was supposed to meet Elena and Elena (yes two!) for dinner, so I wandered around looking for a cafe and found an amazing coffee shop (Double B I think it was called) where I had a much-needed flat white and a sit down before being introduced to the tasty, tasty world of Georgian food at Tbiliso. Oh my god. I clearly need to go to Georgia because they have the most delicious stuff ON THIS EARTH. There was fried bread with cheese, there were all sorts of dumplings, there was chicken in some kind of heavenly nut sauce, there was a spicy red beef soup, there was VERY GOOD WINE, and there was some kind of nuts in grape and honey stuff for dessert. And I wanted to try just about everything else on the menu too, which all looked so different from anything else I’ve ever had. I practically rolled home and flopped into bed like a beached whale.

Then I was down to my last day, which was lovely and sunny again, and I finally went IN to a cathedral. that Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is covered top to bottom in mosaics, which is pretty impressive. And there was a wee display on the restoration of everything which made my dork heart happy. I took another long walk in the freezing sunshine, broken up by a fancy lunch and a trip to the central post office (massive!) for stamps. And my last stop was the Kunstkamera, which was all right, but by the time I got to all the weird medical specimen babies in jars (um, yeah) I was a little too tired to keep my stomach from going all blergh. So I left and had a coffee and cake before one last dinner at home with Elena. Then it was off to catch the Red Arrow overnight to Moscow.

St Petersburg is beautiful. I can definitely see why it’s called the Venice of the North, and I’d love to come back in summer for all the festivals and dancing and WARMTH. All the better for endless walking and eating. It’s a nice bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Russia though, so it was a really good way to start I think. And big, big thanks to my first host Elena, who went out of her way to make me feel at home. Hooray for Couchsurfing! It was my first guest Tatiana who put me in touch with Elena in St Petersburg as well as my hosts Yana and Ifan in Moscow and I have been incredibly well taken care of so far. What an awesome way to travel.

Here’s the full Flickr album of St Petersburg

Start by learning ‘P’ is ‘R’, and the rest will follow

So, before I get into Russia, I just have to mention the rest of my ferry trip. It got way more interesting! After I wrote that last entry, I went up to the pub and got a very tasty pint of Helsinki Porter. I can’t have been sitting there 5 minutes, just about to bust out the kindle, when this older guy came and asked if, since I was alone, I wanted a chat. So I said of course! His name was Heimo, from Finland, and he was just on the boat with a friend for fun because, ‘hey, it’s cheaper than going to a restaurant!’ which, yes, the fare actually is.

Anyway, I told him about my trip, which was met with the usual expressions of disbelief, but he was totally into it. He’d done a bunch of traveling himself and he was super excited for me, which was lovely. He then INSISTED I come with him to the karaoke at one of the other bars. I was slightly hesitant because, ugh, karaoke, but then I was like, obviously, what else am I going to do, why on earth would I say no to this. So we went to the other bar where we met his friend and a group of girls about my age who were having a bit of a work Christmas do.

There were all of maybe 15 other people in this massive bar space with a stage and a dancefloor in front of it, and a whole lot of Finnish karaoke ensued. The girls and Heimo also sang some things in English (The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of all things, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ to which I said surely it’s bad luck to sing that on a boat?!). They were all trying to get me to sing because, according to the girls, it’s just WHAT YOU DO on the Finnish ferry (this was backed up by Carolina and Johanna later). I said the only way it would happen was if they had ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers, which they did not, so I was off the hook. But I did do some dancing with them! It was all very bizarre and wonderful. Just the sort of crazy shit I hoped would happen.

Anyway. After a day of bad weather and rest in Helsinki (and a lovely dinner with Carolina and Johanna) it was off to Russia. The border crossing was super easy as everything was done on board the train and all the train staff spoke Russian, Finnish, and English, so everything was explained perfectly. But then you get off the train in St Petersburg and it’s like the deepest deep end. They direct the international passengers directly onto the street, not even into the station. I’m SO GLAD my host Elena was there to meet me because I probably would have been a bit lost without her.

The main terrifying thing is having no grasp on the alphabet, let alone the language. So everything just feels ten times more confusing. I realise this will occur pretty much every time I enter a new country on this trip (Mongolia does use the Cyrillic alphabet but apparently it’s a little different) but maybe it’s because I’m so close to Europe that it feels that much more shocking. I have such bad memory for language learning, and even my very few words of Russian exit my brain when I’m feeling frazzled (I have had about 10 moments every day where I temporarily forget Спасибо (spasiba) – which is ‘Thank you’ and just about the only thing I know outside of ‘da’ and ‘nyet’). But I’m trying really hard to learn the alphabet so that I can at least read things properly. I’m about 3/4s of the way there. I basically just try to read every word I see to myself, and use the things that are in both Latin and Cyrillic to help me. Also, all the Western brand names are written in Cyrillic (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc) which does help me fill in the blanks because I know what they say already.

It’s quite nice to witness my brain building new connections, because I’ve been here 4 days and I AM learning. Slowly, but it’s happening. Immersion! It works.

I also fully realise it’s ridiculous to expect myself to know all the languages I’ll encounter, but I have this native-English-speaker guilt that I don’t know any more than English. If I maybe knew ONE other language (HTML does NOT count) I’d probably feel a little better about things, but to be so privileged to speak a language that so many other cultures learn as a second (and sometimes third or fourth), it feels so lazy to not know more. I really, REALLY wish ALL English speaking countries required kids to learn a second language from the time they start school. The world would be a much better place. And it would be easier!

In any case, all I can do is make my best effort. And I do. And of course ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ are ALWAYS first.

That first day was immensely tiring. I did wake up at 5 to get the train, but that combined with brain-working-overtime and new country anxiety is a recipe for pure exhaustion. I didn’t exactly take it easy. Elena took me home to drop my bags and have a shower, then she made me an AMAZING breakfast of fried cottage cheese cakes with sour cream and jam, then some tea and meat and bread (this was the first of MANY incredible breakfasts). She then helped me out with maps and metro stuff and a few other basics, then sent me on my way into town to the Hermitage since it would be dark soon and I might as well do something indoors.

So, I was off. The metro is relatively easy as everything is colour coded and written in Latin and Cyrillic and it’s just a metro. I’ve not yet encountered one that’s not workable. But then I got off at Nevsky Prospect and luckily went in roughly the right direction because the tourist maps were not really computing in my head and everything was so jaw-droppingly gigantic and Russian. When I saw the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood down one of the streets I quite literally did a double-take. It was like seeing the Sydney Opera House for the first time in real life – you can’t quite believe something you’ve seen in a bunch of pictures is a real thing in your sight-line.

In my tourist haze, I made it to the Hermitage, which is pretty much the top of every St Petersburg list. And it is big, big, big. Bigger than big. There is so much art in the place I almost stopped seeing it. The detail in the doorknobs alone could fill its own museum. (My favourite was an eagle talon holding a red ball of glass. I don’t know why I didn’t take a picture. It was fucking cool.) The floors and the ceilings and every bit of each of the rooms were at least as interesting to me as anything they contained. And boringly, one of the things I kept wondering about is how on earth they keep it all so clean. And how it must cost a FORTUNE to heat, especially here. (I’m definitely British now.)

I don’t really do well with excessive museum-and-gallery-going, and I hit my saturation point in the Hermitage pretty fast. Tour groups with selfie sticks (AGH!) and people taking more pictures of the art than actually looking at it never help this. And then I start questioning how we as a culture make decisions about what to preserve, and why so much of it, and are people really paying attention to it, especially now that they seem to just take pictures of it instead. (Do they ever even LOOK at those pictures if they can’t be bothered to look when they’re IN the place?) This is not to say preserving things isn’t worth it, but where do you start and stop? We can’t save everything forever.

On the other hand, what I usually take away from such massive collections like this and the Louvre and the Met and all, is just LOOK at what humans are capable of. There is such unbelievably detailed and skilled craft and art on display in these places in such quantities. There is some bad shit going down in the world right now, and it’s nice to be reminded that we as a race are fucking amazing. Why any one of us could then decide to turn around and shoot someone capable of such creativity boggles my mind, but at least there’s plenty of proof in the world that we do some good stuff.

Speaking of which, THE FOOKIN’ BALLET. (Thanks to Billy Elliot, I can’t actually hear the word Ballet without that happening in my head. SORRY.) After a somewhat terrifying first experience ordering food (Russian fast food to be precise. Pancakes!), I went to the Mariinsky Theatre to see my FIRST EVER Ballet, Don Quixote. I, in my hiking shoes, jeans, and wool hoodie, had an amazing seat in an amazing theatre among all sorts of fancily dressed people. It was so impressive. It was 3 hours long! Those dancers have some superhuman talent. And muscles. I honestly thought some of them couldn’t possibly be real. And a full live orchestra is such a lovely thing. AND there was even a horse and a donkey! (They were not dancing.)

At the end of the night, I managed to find a whole different metro stop in the cold and windy rain and get back to Elena’s in one very tired piece. There was then fruit and tea. She has Twinings English Breakfast tea and did not tut at my request for milk. This cup solved all my immediate problems – further proof I’m a fully assimilated Brit.

I then slept like the dead for 10 hours on a golden couch. And that is how you do a first day in Russia.

Booking the Red Arrow

I just booked a Russian train on the Russian railways website without any help from an agency! It was actually… pretty easy.

I went all out (not really, just second class, but it feels like all out because you’ll see) and booked the Red ArrowКра́сная стрела́ or Krasnya Strelapossibly the most historic train in Russia. It’s the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow, and it’s been running nearly uninterrupted since 1931.

Nerd time: It’s train number is 001A. For the first train I take within Russia, I may as well start at the beginning, right?

AND. AND. AND. It just gets cooler because apparently they play ‘The Hymn to the Great City’ as the train leaves the station at 23.55. How fucking GRAND is that? It gets a sendoff EVERY NIGHT.

Plus, look at where I’ll be sleeping:

And to top it ALL OFF, you even get breakfast. You know how I love breakfast. I got to choose based on dietary requirements. There were pictures!

I fail to see how any of this won’t be incredibly exciting even though I’m supposed to be asleep most of the time. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t sleep much.)

I had originally planned on booking everything through Real Russia, who are SUPERHEROES by the way. They have the most amazing customer service ever, including near-instant chat support for whenever I had another slightly panicked question about Russian or Chinese visa applications. I’d have been lost without them. Plus their booking engine has the option to view all the Russian timetables in local time rather than just Moscow time, which makes things much easier on the brain.

I did book a few things through them, as well as getting my Russian visa support document. (I’d have done both my visas fully through them if I’d been in London, but more on that in a future ALL ABOUT THE VISAS post.) But after reading a few blogs about booking yourself and Seat 61’s guide to the English version of rzd.ru (the Russian Railways website), I decided I could spend a bit of extra time in exchange for saving some money.

AND ALSO feeling like a boss for working out the whole timetables and some-things-still-in-Cyrillic thing.

I mean, I’m going to have to do it when I’m there so why not start now! Plus I really like Cyrillic – it’s nice to look at. The only word I can yet recognise – because I’ve seen it a BILLION times now – is ‘вокзал’ (which is ‘railway station’) but, you know, it’s a process.

The English on rzd.ru isn’t perfect, and all the image-based ads and stuff are still in Russian, but as long as you do the whole check and double-sense-check your timings and have Google Translate open for the odd thing or two, it’s absolutely doable. (Thank you, Google Translate, you are and will remain throughout the next few months, my hero.)

They don’t seem to email you your e-tickets like most rail systems, but they’re all stored in your account and it says that you can download them to your phone to show if you don’t want to print them. I’m going to print anyway to be safe, but it’s nice to know I guess. And I think some of the trains I’m looking at don’t have electronic tickets, so it will be nice to get a real live Russian train ticket to save.

As for credit cards, I did have a slight hitch there, which wasn’t a surprise after what I’d read online. It declined my built-for-international-use Llloyds Avios MasterCard (twice), but it accepted my RBS Visa Debit. Slightly annoying as I’ll probably get an international charge for that whereas I wouldn’t have on the credit card, but whatever. I just keep waiting for the fraud team to call, because surely it’s not every day someone buys a Russian rail ticket online. I’ve gotten calls for way more normal things. Lloyds does fraud control by text (which is actually pretty great) but I didn’t even get one of those after being declined twice. Who knows how they decide this stuff?

It definitely would have been much more straightforward getting Real Russia to do this work for me, and I’d HIGHLY recommend them if you can’t be arsed. They’re not THAT much more expensive, and they are utterly fantastic. Plus I’m still double checking my timings with their local-time-d version of the railway timetables.

Anyway, I’ve got a few more trains to book and I’m currently trying to see if I can cut out Yekaterinburg as an overnight stop. It’s hard to pick a stop to lose, but if I don’t, I’ll just be running around like crazy not really seeing much. Also, I REALLY want to spend a good chunk of time on the train. Enforced chillaxing. So I don’t want to only be doing overnight stints without any full days on the train reading and staring out windows and sharing vodka and snacks with Russians.