St. Pete Day 2

Day two started with us finding the rest of the UNI delegation downstairs at breakfast. There are several faculty members and librarians here as well, though each group has a separate schedule. Breakfast was an omelet, orange juice, yogurt, and bread and cheese. I skipped the omelet, and ate the rest, then got ready for some more sight-seeing. The morning started with a visit to Herzen, the State Pedagogical University that Alexey works at. He took us to see his office, and we learned why he is so thin, as it's a long walk up a lot of stairs to reach it. Since Chuck and I are internet addicts, we seized the opportunity to get online as soon as we saw a spare patch cable in Alexey's office. Chuck's laptop turned out to have a bad NIC, so my AirPort Express came in handy again, as I just popped it in place, and set up an impromptu wireless network for Chuck and I to use. The Herzen network admin helpfully poked some holes in the firewall, as they've got it locked down so tight we couldn't contact either an external IMAP or VPN server, but once he opened those up for us, we were right as rain.

We got about 15 minutes of network time in before Alexey showed us the video conferencing room that was set up here last winter by other UNI staffers. It was nice to see a completed room, and they've certainly invested some money in this room, and it shows. They've got echo-canceling acoustic tiles lining the whole room, and have put in a new projector, sound system, and even little booths for people to do simultaneous translation in. It was a pretty high-tech room, all things considered.

Alexey also showed us one of their computer labs, which was pretty nice, filled with new computers from a local white-box manufacturer. We talked some more with the Herzen staff, though most of the time was spent with the MISiS people conversing with them in Russian, while Chuck and I looked over the technology approvingly, then it was time for lunch.

For lunch we went to another pancake house, I think they're called Bliny (prounounced blee-nee), but I could be wrong. I passed on the herring flavored variety, and settled for a plain one with strawberry jam, which was pretty tasty. I added a Coke and some cabbage salad to the order, which made for a good lunch, all-in-all.

Alexey had to return to work, but he left us instructions to meet a tall, dark, and beautiful woman for our trip to the Russian Museum back at our hotel. We didn't have any trouble spotting Anna from Alexey's description, as she met all three descriptors spot on. Anna led us to the Russian Museum, where we pretended to be Russian in order to get in for a cheaper price. As I read the rules, however, our visa allows us to get in at that price anyhow, as only people on tourist visas are supposed to pay the tourist prices, and we're on work/business visas. Also, my Lonely Planet book says that in practice, the Russian ticket takers will also sort of encourage you to pay the Russian price, rather than the inflated tourist price, so it's apparently a pretty common dodge.

Anna proved to be a capable tour guide, though her voice was suffering somewhat, as she'd gotten tossed into the river/canal the night before while partying with some friends, and was trying valiantly to overcome the certain sickness that was the result. The Russian Museum is filled only with the works of Russian artists, and is quite interesting. The paintings are on massive canvases, and depict much of Russian history, as well as Biblical, Greek, and Roman themes. Pitr and Vladimir were with us as well, and after two hours, we'd seen the entire museum. Anna bid us farewell, Pitr and Vladimir returned to the hotel, and Chuck and I set off to poke about the tourist-trappy souvenir market that was near the museum.

All of the vendors in the souvenir market were hawking wares that were almost identical, fur hats, nesting dolls, amber necklaces, and drinking flasks were everywhere. Dickering is a necessity in this market, and most of the vendors are friendly and speak English well enough to sell you their wares. We didn't purchase anything, however, as we were only on a scouting expedition now, and while I may pick up a few gifts there, most of them had the look and feel of cheap mass-produced goods, rather than quality items that I'd rather give as gifts.

We meandered back to our hotel, and decided to rest a bit before finding some food for dinner. I was craving American food, so I talked Chuck into a visit to Pizza Hut, which isn't too far from Herzen. We weren't sure what to expect, as even American chains are "different" in other lands, and I'd heard that the local KFC and Subway franchises were not much like the American counterparts. I'm happy to report that Pizza Hut is an excellent place for someone to get a great pizza in St. Petersburg. I bought a medium pepperoni pizza, and a couple slices of garlic bread, and Chuck had a pasta dish along with the salad bar. The pizza was delicious, just as good, if not better, than any American Pizza Hut pizza I've ever had. I ate half the pizza, then loaded the rest into a take-home box to stash in my refrigerator back in my room.

After dinner, we decided to see if we could use that wi-fi down at Zoom, and lugged our laptops the few blocks to the cafe. Unfortunately, the access cards they sold for the wi-fi didn't actually work, and we just kept getting "authentication failure" messages in our web browser when using the usernames and passwords from the back of the cards. The staff weren't able to help us much, as they're just reselling access from another company, but they did refund our purchase price on the cards.

As we were sitting there, my ears picked up the sound of American being spoke at a table near us, and I introduced myself. It turns out that the table was occupied by Chris, an American from New York, Chris, a Canadian from Ottawa, Catherine, a Dane, and Svetlana, a Russian. All of them are students at local universities, though Chris (NY) is actually two years older than I am. They've come to St. Petersburg to get their degrees, not just for a semester or two of study, and after some brief chatting, they invited us to join then at the yellow-floored place down the road for some drinks.

Chuck and I joined up with them there for some Vodka, with cherry juice to wash it down, and I had a Long Island iced tea too, which was somewhat difficult to order, as the waitress thought I was actually trying to get an iced tea, so we had to point it out to her on the drink menu before we got our order in. After a few shots of vodka, we were sufficiently relaxed and started talking all about the experience of being visitors to Russia, both the good and the bad.

Eventually, someone (I think it was Catherine) suggested that we try another club down the road called "Lenin's Mating Call". As the name suggests, this club is an unusual experience. Chris (CA), Catherine, and Svetlana went ahead, as Chris (NY), Chuck, and I returned to Herzen to leave our laptops behind.

We caught up with the advance team at Lenin's, which is unique to say the least. The decor is faux-Soviet era, with lots of red velvet and busts of Lenin scattered about, quite posh. All over the top of the restaurant/bar area are LCD displays which show an interesting mixture of soft-core pornography videos, interspersed with Soviet-era propaganda films and slogans, generally in 30 second clips of each. The bathrooms, which have magnetic locks, also have little web cameras in them, so after you finish going to the bathroom, you turn around, and see yourself on camera in the little LCD display in the door, and realize you've been watched the whole time (from behind). I'm not exactly sure why the cameras are there, but it's amusing, nonetheless.

Chuck and I learned that we will never want Juniper-flavored vodka again, as it's like drinking Pine-sol, though the unflavored stuff was pretty good. Canadian Chris and I had a political discussion, as he's apparently a Republican, even though he's from Canada. He admitted he doesn't pay much attention to his local politics, as he's in Russia for 6 years to become an expert in counter-terrorism.

Catherine and I talked a bit, she thought I was Danish when I'd walked in to the Zoom. I explained that I was one-quarter Danish, and that I called my paternal grandfather Bestefar, the Danish word.

Around 1:00, the rest of the group needed to disperse, as they raise the bridges in St. Petersburg at 1:30 to let the ships in and out of the city, and they don't lower them again until 3:00, so they had to depart in order to make it home. Chuck and I managed to make our way back to Herzen, where I quickly zonked out, with the help of all that vodka I'd had earlier.