Friday started off with us meeting a young Russian named Kate for a trip to the Yusupov palace. This too was a fairly exclusive tour, something that required special arrangement by our hosts, and not open to the general tourist public. For those that don't know, this is the palace where Grigory Rasputin, the strange svengali-like monk, was murdered. Or, at least where the murder started, depending on which version of the events you want to believe.
The palace is now a working office building, but they've kept much of the interesting area preserved. They provided a tour guide for us, who spoke only Russian, but Kate did a decent job of translating as we looked at all the glamourous dining rooms and ballrooms. Eventually, we got to the basement where Rasputin was fed some cyanide, which apparently had no effect, so then they shot him, after which he fled, so they shot him again outside, then mutilated him some more, and dumped his body in the river.
After looking around the palace, we stopped by the courtyard outside, which is where the likely-fatal shooting took place. We found that it now holds a playground.
Chuck and I came back to the Herzen hotel late to meet Rimma for our trip to the Hermitage, since we were already behind schedule, we wound up eating at McDonald's again, as it's the only place to get "fast" food in this neighborhood without risking your health at a street vendor's cart. Today we decided to try the "Big Tasty", which is sort of like the "Big 'n Tasty" in the U.S., but it has some sauce on it that I didn't really care for. Rimma was amused by the fact that on the giant banner outside the McDonald's, they just wrote "Big Tasty" in Cyrillic, there's no translation, so they just spell it out, as well as it converts.
We then set off for the Hermitage, well aware that we were only going to see a small fraction of the building. We paid out entrance fee, which is somewhat high, at around $13 or so. Starting with the ancient Egyptian exhibit, we then tried to cover as much ground as we could in the two and a half hours we had. We saw mostly European paintings from the 17th-19th Centuries before our feet gave out, and we headed for the exit. It took us 10 minutes to find the exit, and we wound up in a part of the museum which Rimma had never seen on her previous dozen visits, so I hope that conveys some sense of the size. I think you could easily spend a week just in that museum without seeing it all.
After the Hermitage, I got a text message from Chris, inviting us to join him for dinner near the American Consulate. Chuck and I met him near the Kazaan Cathedral, and he flagged a random car to take us there. We wound up meeting Katherine, the Danish girl from our previous night of fun, plus two new Danes, Christian and Jakob, as well as Chris's German roomate, Martin at the Polyglot Cafe, which is just across the street from the Consulate.
I sat with the Danes and talked with them for a bit, they were greatly pleased to learn I had a Bestefar, while most Americans certainly do not. I had a Carlsburg beer, and after hearing a North American woman exclaim that the Cafe had great hamburgers, I decided to order one.
The burger wasn't all that great, it was okay, but it was one of those where the meat is over an inch and a half thick, which is really more than I was looking for. I will say that the french fries were the best I've had in Russia, not counting the McDonald's fries, which are really a separate category in my book. After following my meal with a piece of delicious cheesecake, we went across the street to stand in line at the Consulate.
I was surprised to learn that the security guards weren't Americans, but they took our passports, ran us through security, then eventually admitted us. Inside was a party in the Marine barracks, where they've got a bar set up that's not unlike what you'd find in a posh frat house in the states. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was a non-smoking bar, and that pool and popcorn was free. Katherine and I snacked on popcorn while playing some 8-ball, and I had a truly terrible Long Island Ice Tea. I started drinking rum and cokes after that, as they were a lot more palatable. We met a few more Americans, including Tim, a 50-something guy from Maryland who was working for a State Department contractor to repair the Consulate hot water system. I mentioned how our hotel didn't have any hot water either, and was treated to a 10 minute lecture regarding the intricacies and lunacies of Russian hot water plumbing.
I finally managed to disentangle myself from Tim, and talked to a few of the Marines who were stationed there instead. The party was probably about 35% Americans, 40% Russians, and 25% other nationalities. We got the distinct impression that many of the Russian women there were looking for Americans who might some day take them home to the States.
After losing badly at pool a few more times, Chris bought us a round of shots of Absinth. Now, as far as I can tell, this isn't the illegal stuff that makes you hallucinate, it's just called the same thing. In any case, I didn't hallucinate after two shots of it, though it I've decided it is certainly vile, as it tastes much like black licorice, which I don't like. As to why it took me two shots to realize this, I cannot say.
Around 1:15 we left the party so that Chris and Martin could try to make it home before they raised the bridges in St. Petersburg. Katherine lead Chuck and I to another club called Rossi's, which was crowded, but had a good band playing covers of American rock tunes, including the Vanilla Ice Classic "Ice Ice Baby".
I should also mention that Rossi's has what the Russians call "Streepteez", as do almost all of the larger clubs in St. Petersburg. That's not to imply that the places are seedy, in fact, they're nicer than any of the bars in Cedar Falls or Waterloo, they just happen to have topless a woman who comes out to do a single pole dance every 30 minutes or so. It's not a strip club though, they don't interact with the audience, or take money, and they are far from the focal point of the club. So it's more like a distraction than something you'd actually go to the club for, but I mention it here as it's something you'd want to know before going clubbing if you're going to be uncomfortable in the presence of a topless dancer.
Since I'm a bit less prudish than the average Iowan, I took it in stride, and we danced to the Russian cover band until around 3:00, when we hailed another pseudo-cab and went home. I promptly collapsed into bed without even remembering to see if I had hot water for a shower.