Today was our last day in Russia, and I think we're ready to come home. I slept in late, but met Rimma and her friend Ksenya downstairs, along with Chuck. We set out in Ksenya's VW Golf for the village of Pushkin, where there are palaces that once belonged to the Czars. In fact, it was once called the Czars' Village, but has since been renamed. Sunday mornings are sleepy in St. Petersburg, so traffic was light and Ksenya was an excellent driver, we made our way out there in about half an hour, despite the rain showers. We parked the car and headed for the gates to the park that contains Catherine's Palace. We paid our entry fee and then strolled around the park for about an hour, the girls giggled about something (probably us) while Chuck and I merrily snapped photos of the surrounding lakes, trees, and paths. The fall colors were showing, and I hope my photos turned out, though I'd have been happier if we had some more sunlight.
Eventually, we made our way to Catherine's Palace, where we paid 500 rubles each (250 for the girls, since they're students) to get in. Once inside, we had to check our coats, then put on some dorky little booties over our shoes, so we didn't track any mud or dirt throughout the palace. We then found out that our tour included a guide, who was available only in Russian, so Ksenya and Rimma tried to discretely translate as we made our way throughout the palace.
Now, I appreciate everything we've been taken to see, but today was the day that I reached my limit of gilded cherubs, parquet floors, and fancy chairs. We've seen so many palaces and museums since we've been here, that my interest was rather waning, and my thoughts turned to the trip home. Eventually, we made our way to the Amber Room, which was rather interesting, though not really worth the cost of admission, in my book.
After the tour ended, we milled around the gift shops for a bit, then headed back to St. Petersburg. Traffic had picked up a bit more, so it took a little longer to get back to the hotel. We thanked Ksenya and Rimma, and said goodbye, then Chuck and I headed to the Quo Vadis? Internet Cafe to get online, as my dial-up has been nearly unusable for the last several days from my room.
We spent about two hours online, where I wrote up a bunch of weblog entries, and attempted to order some food via the cafe's intranet. Apparently, they didn't actually have any of the items I tried to order, and it took Chuck several tries to actually get his sandwich, so I gave up on that.
After logging off, we returned to the hotel in time to run into Dr. Vajpeyi, who was still looking to buy a Russian Hat. We walked with him to one of the stores we'd scouted yesterday with Rimma, and he bought a fine looking hat, of much better quality than the crap they sell tourists near the monuments and museums.
I stopped to buy some vodka that I'd been asked to bring to the U.S., and then we went back to our rooms and started packing. At 7:00, we met Alexey downstairs to go to dinner, which took us to a place called FX-017, which was, well, a bar/restaurant with a nautical theme. Chuck and I both ordered the steak with pepper, which turned out to be really good, we got it well done, but it was still tender. I take back what I said earlier about Russian beef, it's good in St. Petersburg, only the stuff I had in Moscow was bad.
After a couple hours of socializing, we returned to the hotel so we could do a bit more packing, and so that I could pawn off a bunch of stuff on Alexey and two of the Russian women from Herzen that joined us for dinner. I had some things, like UNI-branded highlighters and pens, that I'd been giving out as small gifts here and there, and I didn't want to haul them back to the U.S. with me. I also gave away two paperback books that I'd finished reading, an unused box of laundry detergent, one unused bar of soap, and a few other odds and ends that lightened my baggage considerably.
We then decided to cross the street to The Office, the fake British/Irish pub located there, and I had a pint of Heineken while I finished writing the few remaining postcards I had left. We talked with Alexey about his upcoming trip to UNI in January, and I got him to agree to mail my postcards for me tomorrow, as the post office is closed.
Around midnight, we bid everyone goodbye, and I returned to my room in time to catch a (thankfully!) hot shower, put on my last clean change of clothes and finish packing all my stuff. I was pleasantly greeted with my first useful dial-up session since Wednesday morning, so the Gods of Internet Access have smiled upon me long enough to write this.
I've got about an hour and a half until we're supposed to meet in the lobby to load up and head to the Airport, so I'm going to sign off now and finalize all my packing.
It's been an amazing trip that I'll never forget, and I've made a lot of new friends. Russia is different from the U.S. in more ways than I could imagine, but people are people no matter where you go. While I don't think I'd like living in Moscow (or any big U.S. city, for that matter), I could certainly handle living here in St. Petersburg. It's friendly to English speakers, has great restaurants, and is just a supremely beautiful city. I hope I get to come back during the White Nights some summer, especially after the ongoing restoration of the city has had a few more years to restore the glory to the old European buildings.
Maybe then they'll even have wi-fi...