St. Petersburg

Trip Start Aug 07, 2007
Trip End Dec 22, 2007

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

After half of century of economic, political and social warfare the United States prevailed against the evils of communism as the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war grinded to a halt. With Uncle Sam standing triumphantly over the lifeless corpse of Uncle Joe you might ask what the implications of such a turn of events means. It means that a decade and a half later arrogant American college students like myself have won the right to pour into Russia to make sarcastic remarks and buy cheap vodka and soviet heirlooms off the streets. Thus begins my journey to St. Petersburg.
I had wanted to go to Russia for ages now dating back to early high school. High School was when I was first turned on to the Cold War and developed my cold war fetish. All my studying of the era had increased my interest in going to Russia, in particular St. Petersburg as it stood out to me. An opportunity presented itself when my friend Blake (the UW guy who I went to Oktoberfest with) showed me a travel company that takes groups of students from various Swedish Universities. This is convenient as they take care of all the logistics like arranging your tourist visa (needed to visit Russia), hotel, transportation, and optional programs while in St. Petersburg.   At a group meeting before departure our group was asked if their were any males from the United States between the ages of 18 and 68. This led a handful of us to raise our hands and discover that we were lucky enough to fill out extra paper work for our tourist visa's. Questions included:
"Have you ever been in an armed conflict, either as a participant or a victim?"
And my favorite:
"Do you have any specialized skills or training, including firearms, explosives, nuclear, biological, or chemical experience?"
Thank god cold war paranoia is alive and kicking! After all was prepared we just had to figure out how to get to Stockholm where our cruise would take us to Finland. A group of us decided to drive to cut down on the costs of taking a train. It was myself, Blake, a French Canadian Charles, and two French, Loic and Héléne. We took Héléne's car which was comically small. The small two door French car could barely contain the 5 of us and our luggage as we were holding many of our bags in our laps for the 6 hour drive. Loic and Héléne did all the driving which allowed me to pass in and out of consciousness making the drive a little more bearable.  When we got to Stockholm 6 hrs later we dropped the car off at a family friend of Loic's to save on parking costs. We took the subway into the city to the dock to meet up with the tour company who had our tickets for the boat. Since it was only 4 to a cabin I opted out and was put in a cabin with 3 Spanish students who were on our same trip.
  The boat we were on was an overnight booze cruise from Stockholm to Turku Finland where a bus would take us the rest of the way to St. Petersburg. Our entourage met some of the others who would be on our trip, including our group leader Johan, who was a Swedish student from Stockholm. Together we all went to the duty free shop and bought a couple of cases of beer and headed down to one of our cabins. We all crammed into the small cabin and began our first evening of the five nights drinking. After we all drank our share of the beer and being in the hot cabin reeking of booze we decided to head upwards to the dance floors. This cruise consisted of unique demographics. On the one end of the spectrum you have young teenagers running around the ship and dancing like they were in a Britney spears video, which is equivalent to soft core porn.  On the other end of the spectrum you have predatory middle aged women who we'll label as "cougars" for their propensity to stalk their prey, in this case younger men.   We first decided to hang back and survey the situation while enjoying an overly priced beer from the bar. We were watching one older guy; he probably fell within the same age bracket as my grandpa, but with an unshakeable confidence. As we would try and guess what older woman he would ask to dance he always proved us wrong by asking one of the few girls who were attractive and in our age group. He managed to do it in a non-creepy way and win over the hearts of the women. For one night he was our hero. As the night carried on into the early morning Loic, our comrade in arms, broke off from the group and found himself dancing in the claws of a cougar. At this point we had all stopped dancing and were gathered around the dance floor sitting at tables enjoying our drinks and the entertainment that Loic was providing. The woman ended up being from St. Petersburg herself and insisted on giving Loic her phone number when she found out that he was going there. While in St. Petersburg as a group we are given optional programs (museums, etc.) and this woman became known as optional program #3. However in our dismay in hopes of a good story Loic never pursued optional program #3. On our way back to our cabins that night we stumbled across two older men, one who was near passed on the floor with the other sloppily nursing him. Apparently they were brothers one of which was sick as a dog and couldn't make it to his feet while the other apparently was able to hold his liquor only slightly better than his brother. Charles engaged in song with the upright brother while the other bitched and moaned on the ground. The two guys would literally be rolling around in the hallway all night.
After a few short lived hours of sleep we were woken up with news of being in the Turku port. Hastily packing my bags I rushed off the ship to meet up with my friends and bus. Sluggishly and hung over our entire group of students made our way onto one of the two buses which was divided up by which university you came from (about 3 uni's represented on each bus). It was the beginning to a verrry long bus drive since we were driving the rest of the way to St. Petersburg and had to go through long delays at the border. There were moments on the bus drive when I would wake up for a split second before falling back asleep where literally everyone was asleep and the bus was eerily quiet. The bus ride was very smooth for me as I dozed on and off the entire way after taking my motion sickness pills. This is in contrast to the Austrian Karl who the previous night had undertook the task of trying to kill a bottle of Absinth. This left him sick all night on the boat and the following day on the bus. On the bus he simply had plastic bags that we would throw up into which got particularly bad when we hit the bumpy and poorly maintained roads of Russia. Upon entering the snow filled landscape of Russia after hours of driving through the relatively gloomy country side of Finland our bus driver made the announcement through the intercom that we were going to the "Forest Market".   He pulled the bus over off the highway onto a snowy turnout on the edge of the woods. There stood a white van alone in the bitter cold of the Russian wilderness. When the back doors of the van swung open it revealed the stacks of moneys, mounds of cigarette cartons, and all the liquor and beer you could need. Here you had the chance to exchange currencies and buy all the booze and cigarettes that your compulsive heart could want. It was a fitting first experience in Russia.
Our hotel in St. Petersburg was surprisingly nice. When Blake and I got to our room, we turned on the TV and randomly the first thing we saw was this gypsy chanting into the camera. They also have a large amount of American tv on as well with all of it being dubbed. Now you may think it is traditional dubbing but lets not forget that this is Russia. No matter who was speaking on tv, whether it was a teenage girl or a wise cracking businessman, there was only one guy who dubbed all the characters in a deep, rough Russian voice. It kinda kills a show when you are watching the Simpson's and Lisa's voice is that of a middle aged man.
That first night there we went out to a restaurant that had some fairly traditional Russian food.  Since no one in the restaurant spoke English it left us to pointing at pictures on the menu. Following that we invited people back to our rooms to drink. Upon entering our room everyone's standard response was:
             "What the fuck, why is your room so small?"
So the room we thought was nice ended up being about 1/3 the size of everyone else's. We figured it was because we were Americans and apparently on other trips that happened after ours that I had some friends on, they said Americans got stuck in that room as well. C'est la vie.
After another few hours of sleep we were up early again and grabbed some breakfast before heading out to our first event. We sluggishly climbed onto our bus still have asleep despite the coffee only to be greeted by our enthusiastic tour guide. She was a little middle aged Russian woman that from the moment that the bus would start moving till when it stopped she would talk non stop without breath. She is an example of a "you had to be there" story since her personality is hardly describable but provided us hours of fun of imitating her. We ended up at Catherine's Palace early on our first morning in St. Petersburg. It was pretty amazing and we got a good tour through it. We spent the first half of the day in the palace and around it. At one point we got in a snowball fight with some Russian kids that were there on a field trip. After we as mature young adults decided to move on Loic decided to continue to fight on only to be demolished by the youngin's.   Our bus picked us up and then dropped us off in more central St. Petersburg to hang out until our evening program. So a decent sized group of us went wandering around and after a quick lunch we ended up at the Church on Spilt Blood.  An emperor was killed on the spot and it was built there as a sort of memorial. It was completely astonishing inside. Practically the entire church from your shoulders up was all mosaic. It was unbelievable the detail in this massive place. I didn't spend the extra money (cause I'm cheap) to take pics inside and really regret it. After we left we ventured back out into the cold and looked for shelter and a beer before our evening program began. As we walked along the streets we saw a bar that had a full sized wolf man sitting in the window and figured we had to go there. The bar also included a witch that rode her broom in circles above us while there is also a boy and girl dummies swinging from a swing. After some drinks and pictures in there we went on to Nikolaiyev's Palace to see a traditional Russian folk dance as our evening program. The folk dance was simply amazing as well. There was a group of men who sang first followed by the dancers with a band of traditional instruments being played throughout. The dancers could do things physically that I could never imagine doing. Also the fact that I don't exercise or apply myself to any activities remotely athletic could play in to why I can't do it. Ultimately it was a pretty amazing event that had a great intermission where we got to enjoy a small stringed quartet with h'orderves and champagne and wine. After a little networking I left with many contacts in the mafia. Don't get on my bad side.
We went back to our hotel to start a night of partying there. This led to congregating in some of the larger rooms allowing the debauchery to ensue.  Some of the other French and Québécois tended to get naked a lot. This had been a running theme throughout the trip as they would get naked (guys) and run around, even on the boat. This particular night they at least weren't completely naked as they were all wearing there furry Russian hats that they had bought during the day. Surprisingly enough, after this night and all the other nights of obscene and loud behavior we never got any complaints.
After another night of only a few hours of sleep we stumbled out of bed to embrace another cold early morning in Russia. Today we got back onto the bus for a bus tour with all of our favorite little Russian tour guide. During these drives I would fade in and out of consciousness due to just exhaustion. Through my traveling I have learned that these bus tours are a great way to see a lot of sites as we just drove around learning about the city and stopping at the most important sites to get out and explore. Our tour of St. Petersburg ended at the Hermitage museum. The museum is massive with some pretty interesting exhibits in it but ultimately the architecture and the interior is what's most amazing about the museum. Following the museum we went on a canal cruise which was a highlight of the day. St. Petersburg is often called the "Venice of the north" for its canals as there are some 42 islands that make up the city. It was night by the time we got on the cruise and were given a bottle of vodka and champagne. We were also lucky enough to have about 6 Russians come on the cruise in their traditional dress wear and play music, sing and show us some more traditional Russian dance. At our table it was some people I had been hanging out with a lot, Win and Pele (Americans from N. Carolina and NY respectively) and Imogen from Australia. There was also a French couple at our table (who we will hear more about later on). During the cruise I was pulled up to dance and performed gracefully and was given a lip stick smeared kiss on my cheek. I got pulled up a second time, to play an instrument and once again display my distinct showmanship. Since there was extra vodka Imogen got our table another free bottle which we welcomed. It was an all around fun evening cruising through the canals and enjoying the lighted city.
  We opted to go back to our hotel after stopping off to load up on more good cheap vodka. After another very long day out on the town it was good to rest for a second and catch out breath. It didn't last long as we gathered again to begin drinking. The drinking began with a celebration of Simon, a French Canadian, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday by taking 22 shots. The shots were cleverly lined up to look like Quebec's flag with blue liquor and vodka. He began doing them and throughout the process threw up 3 times. Amazingly he finished but not after putting his life in danger. Although he was putting his body through a beating I thoroughly enjoyed watching and laughing with delight. After that we went to another hotel room to pre drink and all drank our fair share before heading out to a club. We had a decently large group going out and ventured into the city on the subway. When getting on the subway you take an escalator that keeps on going down and down as though we would end up in some kingdom of molepeople who's only goal is to bring about the destruction of us "surface dwellers". My theories of what lies beneath the surface aside, we submerged from the under ground and wandered around for a while until we found a club that we all wanted to go to. It was kind of underground itself and was deceptively large. My memory is a little hazy... given the alcohol consumption... but it was impressive with little passageways from dance floor to dance floor and lounge areas tucked away in little alcoves. Charles and Blake told me later about a hardcore fight they saw between two Russians in the club involving one even kicking the other in the chest. Some of us ended up leaving after 5 and getting back to our place around 5:30. It was a bitch to get a cab but we eventually did it. In St. Petersburg there aren't cab rates, you negotiate the price before you leave and that's the set price for the trip. Well a group stayed even later at the club including Imogen and the French couple (Philip and Nicolas, the ones we were with on the canal cruise). Nicolas had been at the bar all night repeating over and over:
             "Paris is the most beautiful city in the world"
Naturally people would argue posing arguments of if you haven't visited them all how could you know, etc. All this was met with his drunk and stubborn statement. Eventually he started creating enough drama after a while that he got thrown out prompting the rest of the group to leave. This is where the story gets hazy as we have heard the story recounted by Philip in broken English. When they all got in the taxi there wasn't room for all of them so Nicolas opted to take a taxi home by himself. So when Nicolas gets a cab by himself and is driving away, the taxi driver tries to negotiate a price.  The driver finds out that Nicolas has no money after looking in the wallet and takes the wallet while throwing him out physically from the cab. So now we have a Frenchman wandering the streets of St. Petersburg without papers or any idea where he is. As the story goes, somehow he ended up climbing into a snowplow parked next to the road that happened to be near the police station. The Police find him out there and bring him in to talk to him. He however keeps on going outside to have a cig so ultimately the police just throw him into jail of what I am assuming is essentially a drunk tank. He was released in the morning to make it back to our buses in time to leave thankfully. And how many of you had money riding on me to be the one in a Russian prison? Proves the safe bet isn't always the best.
On Blake and my end of the story given how late we get in I lay right down without changing and just past out. It is important to note that we had to have all our luggage packed and ON the bus between 7-7:30 even though we only arrived home hours before. So comes the morning and we hear pounding on a door. I swing open my door only to find two of the French girls looking startled at me as they are knocking on our neighbors door, the party animals from Quebec. Feeling a little better I close the door until Blake asks what time it is. Glancing at my cell phone the time screamed back at me: 8:00. Yes, and we hadn't even packed our bags. Still drunk and with a splitting headache I scrambled along side Blake throwing everything indiscriminately into my bags. Climbing onto the bus full of students I simply moaned and shaked in agony from the excruciating hangover. We weren't the last as some of the frenchies climbed on a bit later. The last one on was Matthieu who is also a frenchie and instead of snuggling into a seat on the bus he just laid down in the aisle and past out for the rest of the trip. This was another one of those moments in which every individual was dead asleep and not a sound could be heard.
  We made one last stop to get food and such at a Russian indoor market before crossing back. In the market there was everything from fresh produce, to candies, to clothes and to a golden penis. Are you thinking you misread that because you didn't. Randomly one of the booths in the market had a golden penis statue for sale and naturally the people who bought it were the frenchies to give to Simon for his birthday. Big surprise. Naturally each time a frenchie fell asleep they were found in a compromising situation and with the golden penis with someone taking a picture. But that aside, after another   long bus drive and stops at the borders we arrived back in the Finnish port city of Turku. Since we had about 4 hours to kill we were dropped off in the city center to get dinner and go explore. After a little while it just got a little boring and myself and the others were glad to finally be able to get back on the cruise ship. On the cruise ship back it was myself, Blake, Win and Imogen in a cabin which worked out perfectly since all of our senses of humor meshed well. I initially thought I wasn't going to drink but that changed quickly as everyone became committed to drinking every night of the trip. This time armed with good cheap vodka and a lot more friends then we headed out with we had a great time. Somehow every one ended up in our cabin first, which is small enough with 4 people nonetheless a large crowd. In efforts to get everyone from boozing up our room too much we headed up to the disco where the remainder of the night was. Since at this point in the trip the good majority of us were friends we were able to dominate the dance floor and deter the people who fell outside our age bracket from joining. Once again the frenchies began shedding clothes and dancing around in their underwear, some accompanied with the golden penis. Security took surprisingly long to get them to put their clothes back on, long enough for us all to make memories that we don't want to remember. After a while we all one by one gave up and try to salvage some sleep from the night. Imogen and the frenchies were practically all that remained. Imogen, sharing a room with us, had been drinking a good deal of jagermeister, enough so to knock out a beast of a man but fortunately she is an Aussie and can drink a bit more than the average human. That didn't stop her from passing out multiple time on the way back to the room with the frenchies. In the very early morning when we were all trying to get off the ship she was passed out face down and motionless. I was pretty convinced she was dead until we could slap her awake.
We made our goodbyes to the group as we moved on back to Héléne's car which was still back at Loic's family friends house. On the way home we managed all of our luggaged back into the car, plus souvenirs, plus Loic's ten liters of vodka he bought to bring home. Another 6 hour drive and the long journey came to a close. At this point this blog entry will serve more as a reminder for me of some of the stuff that happened. It was such a good trip and the more I try to explain it to friends here no matter how hard I try I can't convey the fun I had. Sorry for not updating the blog lately either but its been very busy around these parts. Also, I am truly impressed if any of you were able to make your way through this entire entry.

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