Behind the Facade

Trip Start Aug 25, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2007

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Flag of Russia  ,
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This was one of the craziest and busiest days of the Russia trip.  After breakfast, it was straight to a tour of the city called "Behind the Facades."  Yep, bet it's a surprise to you that all the pretty westernized buildings are, in fact, not how 99% of the population lives.  Two students were supposed to take us around but one was late.  So the first girl took us around the city to places visitors don't really see.

Russians don't like to take responsibility for communal property.  Because of that, they don't really employ a building maintenance guy or anything like that.  They just refuse to fix or clean anything in the hallways or stairwells...ever.  That staircase could be leading to a perfectly nice and middle class apartment, though substantially smaller than American standards for space.

Many apartment buildings have outside openings to basements.  These are usually kept wide open so that homeless people can sleep in them at night.  Unfortunately, terrorist concerns have caused the government to board up these spaces, leaving thousands of homeless people without a warm place to sleep for the night.  They boarded up these spaces without also adding to the spaces for them in homeless shelters.

After a few more apartment buildings the second girl showed up and we split up.  I headed into her group and was very glad that I did.  I think she was borderline crazy but that only made the tour more fun.  It started by her running to catch a minibus and then cramming us all inside.  Minibuses are just short buses.  We had never taken them as you can't really tell where they are going or what to do on them in general.  We took a crazy ride around and ended up at a market.  This is a place where lots of immigrants or people from the southern and eastern parts often sell stuff.  Therefore, it has the feel of a more eastern market.  Stuff was really really cheap, kind of like a giant flea market, but we didn't have time to shop.

After that, we went to a food market where the average person might do their grocery shopping.  For a moment, I almost wanted to stay in Russia.  These things just do not exist in Denmark and I was so jealous.  Tons of produce, a whole aisle of cheeses, one stall that only sold all things pickled.  Oh and free samples of whatever you want.  Again, we didn't have much time to stay but we were there just long enough to have fun at the candy counter.  One thing about Russia is almost all the food is made in Russia, not imported.  Yet, the variety is 10x greater than Denmark.  All the candies had old fashioned packaging, maybe hand wrapped with different designs that hadn't been changed since probably the 50s.  Wish we would have had more time to explore but as I said, the guide was kind of crazy and kept running off to other things.

So at about 11:30 am, she took us to our final stop...a bar.  A Soviet era bar to be exact, and one of only maybe 5 left.  It was a little unmarked hole in the wall place, filled with 50 year old men.  It wasn't horribly crowded this early in the morning, but more crowded than a bar should be at such a time.  I think they were a bit weirded out by all the foreigners and girls in the bar.  Naturally, we had to do a shot of vodka.  And when you do a shot of vodka, you don't have a chaser.  You eat something with it instead.  There were pieces of bread with various toppings and pickles and hard boiled eggs.  I got a pickle.  It tastes a little rancid, but it's supposedly very traditional and does take the burn away.  The cost for a shot of vodka and a pickle?  About $2.50.  It doesn't taste like cheap vodka though.  I was alllmost able to do the whole shot, as it burns less than american vodka and surprisingly, the rancid tasting pickle did kind of help.

With a shot of vodka already in us, it was time for lunch.  We ate at a restaurant that had stroganoff in the name.  It was a huge buffet that consisted of no stroganoff but lots of various meat-filled and potatoey things that all tasted pretty good.

Then it was off to the Hermitage/the Winter Palace.  The Hermitage is the largest art museum in the world.  People always think the Louvre is, but it's not.  However, the Louvre should still get the credit, as I think it actually has much more art on view.

The Hermitage was stuffy and crowded.  Security was everywhere in Russia.  And our tour guide...well I think she was contemplating suicide by how she acted.  She had nothing of interest to say and stopped abruptly 5 minutes in to go, "NO!  I dont like that...that..." and she made this clicking sound with her teeth.  It was her way of so politely saying, "Could you not chew gum when I am giving a tour?"  Note that gum chewing was her personal pet peeve, not an actual rule.  I was actually horrified that 5 people could get into an art museum chewing gum, but the rules here never make sense.

So um yeah, she showed us around the museum which, at first, was just a glorified palace tour.  It was nice, but where the hell was the art?

We eventually got to the art, but it honestly wasn't very exciting.  The tour guide liked to name drop famous artists.  They have a Da Vinci, they have a Raphael...and so on.  However, they were really impressive pieces by them.  It seemed like the museum had tried hard to get all the big names, even if the piece of art wasn't all that interesting.  Also, I'm not totally sure both the Da Vincis were actually proven to both be by him.  One looked really early and hard to tell.

She, thankfully, let us go in the Impressionist section.  We still had to dress up and eat dinner for the ballet later so there wasn't much time to look.  Yet again, I found the collection very unimpressive and was surprised by the shere lack of quantity of paintings.  The Louvre just has stuff eveeerywhere.  So yeah, mixed impression.  Weird place, should've had more time to explore.

Instead, we ran back, skipped dinner, and put on fancy clothes.  I bought what I thought were cheetos.  They were made by cheeto but they were shaped like fries and tasted funky.  Oh well...

The ballet, as could be expected, was awesome.  All the dancers seemed perfect.  My only complaint was with the ballet itself and what are you going to do?  Sure, the other group got to see Swan Lake, but we had to deal with Sleeping Beauty.  It's obviously one of the lesser ones.  My biggest problem was that Act II was much much better than Act III.  I kept waiting for an amazing last song that just didn't happen.  That being said, Act II was amazing.  Act III was just weird and tried to retell 5 different fairytales in half an hour.  The whole storyline was a little weird and rushed...but then again, if the princess is asleep for the whole play, how can she dance?

I should also mention we were in the Mariinsky theater, where I believe this ballet and many many others made their debut.  It's been around for quite awhile.

That fancy box was for diplomats and the like.  The tzars, Stalin, and Lenin actually didn't sit there, but sat in the boxes closest to the stage because, of course, they were also part of the show.

Getting back at midnight, we had dinner in the hotel where we experienced some great Russian service.  That means, the waitresses avoid eye contact with you and literally walk away until a very very hungry and pissy Anna, our Russian speaking guide, gets up and demands that the waitress actually, ya know, do her job.  Even if you manage to order food, you might as well just give up on ever getting a receipt.  Another reason capitalism wins again.  Make people fear for their jobs!  Make people work for tips!  Haha...then they pay more attention to you.
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