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.