St. Pete Day 4

Wednesday started off with me skipping breakfast to work on my presentation. I managed to get a decent connection to the internet from my room, so I started screen capping some web sites I wanted to demo, as I knew I wasn't going to have internet access while presenting. I spent about two hours doing this, then met Chuck and the faculty down in the lobby to go to Herzen. We arrived at Herzen to be greeted with a new schedule, showing that Chuck and I were presenting after lunch. We also found out that we were presenting for Alexey's group of IT people after lunch as well, and concocted a schedule to try to meet both of our obligations. We attended Dr. Connor's presentation about the power of dead bodies in politics, a Russian presentation about the St. Petersburg Subway system, another one about the foreign policy of Soviet Russia in the 1950s, and one more about teaching globalization in Law.

We then took a break for lunch, though Chuck and I sought out Alexey so that we could make sure our laptops would work in the classroom where we'd be presenting. We were going to have their remote Vyborg campus teleconferenced in via the Polycom unit, so our laptops needed to output an S-Video signal so that the remote site could see our presentations. Fortunately, I brought my video adapter with me for my PowerBook, but the crappy Gateway laptop that Chuck got stuck bringing didn't have S-Video out, though it had Composite out. Chuck thought that we might have a converter left over from the Moscow Polycom project, so he hauled ass from Herzen back to the Hotel to get it, while I set up my AirPort Express and surfed the web. They'd put the firewall from hell back in place again, so I was pretty much limited to what I could do through my web browser, but I was at least able to read my e-mail.

Chuck showed up 20 minutes later, sweating and panting for breath. We tested his laptop, which worked fine, and then set off for the Politics Conference, where we were presenting first.

I was up first, and gave my newly revamped presentation, focusing primarily on political weblogs, their potential uses in academia, and the usefulness of RSS. I then packed up my dog and pony show, and rushed off to Alexey's area, as Chuck began his presentation behind me.

The group for the second rendition of my presentation was much different than the first. Instead of professors, I had mostly female English students in attendance, so I sort of glossed over most of the political stuff, and talked more about Academia, and how students can use the technology. I went over how they could all get weblogs from, and they at least pretended to pay attention, writing down the URL. I got a few laughs by showing them some of the tales from the UNI students on the China Diaries weblog we're hosting at UNI, and then Chuck arrived to give his second talk.

I happily abdicated the chair, and let Chuck do his bit about Internet Usage and Trends in 2004, as well as showing off some non-browser-based internet applications and how they can be used for information gathering.

After the students all filed out, I checked my e-mail and discovered a message from Chris (NY) inviting us to join him for dinner at Tequila Boom, a Mexican restaurant here in St. Peterburg. We got Alexey to give us some rudimentary instructions, and I located where we wanted to go on my map of the city, we just had to get there. Chuck and I set out on foot, and found our way there with no problems, it turned out to be a 25-minute walk, or so.

Along with Chris (NY) was Canadian Chris and Katherine from Denmark walked in soon thereafter. We were presently joined by Kai(sp?) from South Africa and Antoine from France, making for Coalition of the Hungry strong enough to invade a Middle Eastern nation. Oh, wait, we didn't have anyone from Poland. Never mind.

We ordered some chips and salsa, and I ordered a Corona. In Russia, beer is often cheaper than water, especially in restaurants, where instead of serving the "Aqua Minerale" bottled by Pepsi (which is cheaper than bottled water in the US), they're prone to giving you a bottle of Perrier for 85 rubles, when you could have probably gotten a bottle of beer for 40. Of course, since we're dumb Americans, limited to saying "vaa-da biz-gaza" (Water, no-gas) and we don't find out the price until we get the cryptic receipt, we may just be getting screwed.

For the main course, Katherine and I both selected "Gringa", which was two wheat tortillas filled with cheese, lettuce, and seasoned pork, and topped with a slice of pineapple. It was really pretty tasty. We also split a potato filled with chili and sour cream, which was good too. Chuck had a big burrito, which he said was good, but was way more food than I could have eaten.

After eating, we headed off for a bar called "Time-Out" because Katherine wanted to play pool, and they apparently have a pool table, which doesn't seem to be all that common in Russia. I then learned something new about St. Petersburg. As the bar was some distance away, the group decided we would travel by taxi, which is something I hadn't done. Now, by taxi, they didn't mean a licensed cab, which is apparently quite expensive. No, in St. Petersburg, it's apparently common to just hail a random car, pay the driver 100 rubles, and have them take you to your destination. I was somewhat hesitant to do this at first, but they all assured me it was quite common, and generally considered safe, and given that we were going to outnumber any driver three-to-one, I went along with it.

So, we hailed a couple of cars, which is accomplished by standing alongside the road with your hand out until one stops, at which point you negotiate a price and a destination, and you get in. There were so many of us, we had to split into two cars, but we made it to our destination just fine, though our car was a hatchback that was somewhat cramped with three of us in the back seat.

As we arrived at "Time Out", which is normally a student hangout, a student coming out of the bar told us that it wasn't a good night to go there, as it was filled with Georgians. People from the Caucus region are generally looked-down upon by other Russians, so I didn't think much of that, but as we walked in, it looked like a pretty rough-and-tumble bunch. They were all in the main room, watching soccer on the big projection screen, so we headed for the back to check out the pool table. It had already been claimed, so we wound up just grabbing a beer (I had a Heineken) and waiting. Eventually, we gave up on waiting for the pool table, and decided to go to another bar that Katherine knew about, with an unpronounceable name, but they celebrate New Year's Eve there nightly. Maybe Alexey will read this and post the name in the comments, otherwise, it shall remain a mystery.

We hailed a couple more cars, and I scored a really nice new sedan this time, and set off for this bar. We didn't have the exact location, but Katherine got us close enough that Chris (NY) was able to extract the location from an inebriated passer-by.

We eventually arrived at the bar, which is marked by two large hares outside, and is decorated inside like some sort of twisted Alice in Wonderland nightmare. There are doors located in random places throughout the metallic-finished bar, combined with giant rabbits with exposed rib-cages hanging from the ceiling. We had to pay a 100-ruble cover-fee, which may or may not be something aimed at foreigners, we suspect it was, but eventually secured a table and began to consume vodka.

The staff of this bar are all dressed in sort of a bunny-pajama outfit. Nothing full scale and hot like an Easter Bunny costume, just a sort of white coverall with a cloth rabbit ear headdress. Are rabbits related to New Years here? I don't know.

So, we had several rounds of vodka, with red grape juice to wash it down (I so would not want to throw this up) and eventually our inhibitions had been lessened enough that Katherine was able to goad us into dancing.

In Russia, even uncoordinated fat white guys like me can dance. Chris (NY) told me this before the dancing started, and I soon realized it was true. I'm guessing that since there aren't many African-Americans in Russia, the standard of acceptable dancing is much much lower than America. You can pretty much go out on the dance floor and convulse like an idiot, and you'll be just like everyone else. I'm not saying that dancing cool is a blacks-only thing, just that they have perhaps taught us white folks a thing or two about good moves. In Russia, there isn't really any racism towards blacks, they're considered "cool", but are somewhat rare. As it happens, we met a Nigerian guy who'd just moved to St. Petersburg three weeks before, and he was working in one of the bunny-suits at the club, and yes, for the record, he danced much better than the Russians.

Eventually, the bar staff hauled out a Christmas tree and put it in the impromptu dance floor. I learned that since religion was somewhat repressed during the Soviet era, here it's a New Year's Tree. They also apparently have New Year's Klaus, which is Santa Claus, only he gets a week off to recover before having to deliver their gifts, I guess. We all danced around the New Years/Christmas tree some more, except for Canadian Chris, who wouldn't even participate in the awkward dancing, and just kept saying he was embarrassed for/by us.

Around midnight, we got a bottle of "Sparkling Wine" as apparently the French have enforced their ban on the word Champagne here as well, and we all rang in the New Year dancing to remixed Christmas Carols, with a dance beat. If you've always wanted to rock out to Jingle Bell Rock, come to St. Petersburg.

Eventually, Chris called "Yuri" to come give us all a ride home. This is the same Russian he had called on our previous night out, though Chuck and I had walked home then. I asked Chris about Yuri, who apparently is a guy who knows how to get things done. As best as I can figure it, he drives people home from bars professionally, generally from a specific Irish pub, but he is apparently willing to freelance, at least for Chris. He also can arrange, uh, female companionship for you, and he apparently has a book with prices for this purpose.

We didn't avail any of his other services, and he rapidly deposited us at Kazaan Cathedral, which is near Herzen, where Chuck and I managed to get back to our rooms without incident. I did remember to take a shower before going to bed, as there isn't any hot water in the mornings, and then I slept the deep sleep that only massive quantities of vodka can bring on.