Chuck and I had been a bit worried about the fate of Kai Hendry, the South African Linux geek we partied with in St. Petersburg (see photo of the two of us here). His last blog post had him setting off for the Andaman Islands near India to celebrate the New Year with his French traveling companion, Antoine (who we also met). Unfortunately, the Tsunami also decided to go there. His blog has been down, but I found this story today, saying he's alive.
And, though they've hidden it (from all but Google) in a for-pay archive, the Independent had this statement from him:
Kai Hendry, a 26-year-old computer-science student from Bodmin, Cornwall, who was on holiday in the Andaman Islands.
"I was relaxing in a hammock on the beach when the earthquake hit. The force of the tremors was unbelievable and it began raining coconuts as the place shook. I ran and held on to a tree for what felt like an age but was probably only about a minute before it all went quiet.
"Then all of a sudden the tide went right out and the sea disappeared. Even at this point we didn't know what was coming and remained close to the sea until the wave came and we had to run for our lives. We should have realised what was coming, but nobody did.
"My French travelling companion, Antoine, and I decided we had to think of a plan or we would die there. Our only option was to run inland into the jungle but there was no path, only thick, dense undergrowth. We pushed through it with the water rushing around us and eventually clambered up on to a high section of ground."
The voyage home from Russia was supposed to begin at 3:30 a.m. in St. Petersburg, as that's when we were supposed to meet in the lobby of the hotel, where a van/bus would be waiting to take us to the airport in time for our 6:40 departure. Unfortunately, the van/bus never showed up, so we wound up hailing cabs in the street to take us. One of the UNI library staff negotiated a rate of $80 with the first driver, who agreed to call two more drivers to carry the eight of us, plus our luggage to the airport. Unfortunately, we didn't fit in the first three cabs, and I wound up in a fourth cab by myself with all the luggage. As we sped along in a direction that I hoped was somewhat in the general direction of the airport, I tried to not to think about the possibility that I was being taken somewhere to have my kidneys removed for sale on the black market. I also kept repeating over and over that I wanted the International airport, as St. Petersburg has two airports, the other one being for domestic travel only.
After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the airport, where the driver demanded $20 U.S. from me. All I had on me were rubles, a total of 3 500-ruble notes (that I'd been intending to change to dollars at the airport), plus some change. Great. Of course he claimed not to have change, and wound up getting 1000 rubles out of me, which is more like $34 than $20, but I was not exactly in a strong bargaining position. I made my way inside, went through security (twice), having to open the dreaded white equipment case before checking it, then settled in to wait for the flight to Frankfurt.
The flight to Frankfurt was uneventful, and I slept for about half an hour, as I hadn't gone to sleep before leaving for the airport, operating under the theory that then I'd be able to sleep on the plane(s) if I didn't get any sleep the night before. We arrived in Frankfurt, where we unloaded the jet on the tarmac, showing our passports at the door to a German Polize who didn't even make Chuck and I open our passports once he saw they were from the U.S. We then boarded a bus and shuttled over to the main terminal, where we found ourselves deposited in the large shopping area of the Frankfurt airport.
There was a shop specializing in chocolate, but their credit card machine wasn't working, and now I was down to only 500 rubles, not having found a place to change it to greenbacks or Euros yet. I gave up on that shop, and went to a duty-free shop, where I bought some really really good Swiss chocolate, about five pounds worth, that I loaded in my carry-on. I really love white chocolate, and most of what you find in the U.S. isn't very good, so I had to stock up.
We then went to the gate to await our flight to the U.S., and were even lucky enough to find some power outlets, so that Chuck and I were able to charge up our laptops while waiting. I played some Civilization III to pass the time, and eventually we boarded the 747 bound for Chicago.
Once on board, I discovered that Dr. Tom Connors and I were in the same row, he had the window seat, and I had the aisle. Chuck was across the aisle from me, in the aisle seat of the middle section, and as the plane filled up, no one showed up to take the seat between Tom and I. We grew pretty excited, as having that seat empty for the next 9 hours would make us both a lot more comfortable, but alas, it was too good to be true, and a hulking Serbian guy was soon indicating that he was going to be sitting in our row, and attempting to convince me to take that middle seat.
He didn't speak much English, but I made it pretty clear that there was no way he was getting my aisle seat, so he was just going to have to suffer in the middle, even though he was about 2 inches taller and 60 pounds more muscular than me. He begrudingly accepted his fate, and crammed himself into the middle seat as we got ready to take off.
The Serb started reading some tabloids, and from what Tom and I could deduce, he seemed to be into kickboxing, karate, and martial arts. He certainly fit the profile. I also think he may have been taking steroids or other drugs, and was going through withdrawal, as he was constantly bouncing his legs in the nervous way that many people (including myself) sometimes do. However, most people don't do that when there are two other people wedged up against you, attempting to sleep, while you're bouncing around in your seat like you have to pee. It was annoying, to say the least.
Fortunately, I think he had some sort of problem with his right kneecap, as he kept rubbing it, and getting up to stand in the back of the plane. I estimate he spent at least a third of the flight back there, which was fine with us, as it gave us more room, and gave me an opportunity to get several 20-30 min naps in on the flight, though I would not say I was comfortable. I kept wondering aloud how much Business Class upgrades cost, because I'm pretty sure it's worth it. I even spent about 20 minutes in one of the little airplane bathrooms, just because I liked being able to stretch out. Flying coach in Lufthansa proves that my people (the Germans) have not entirely forgotten how to torture large numbers of people efficiently.
Chuck also had an interesting traveling companion, a man of unknown nationality who boarded the airplane completely intoxicated. He didn't look like a nervous flier who'd loaded up before getting onboard, this guy had the look of of someone who was on a first-name basis with every bartender in town, and could have probably wrung enough alcohol from his clothing and greasy hair to get drunk in a pinch. He was mostly incoherent and incapacitated, though he roused shortly after take-off to say "I need to wake up!" repeatedly. While Chuck found this to be somewhat odd, he sort of nodded along politely, as the man grew more insistent in his proclamations, before realizing that the man actually meant he needed to get up, not wake up, and needed Chuck to vacate the aisle seat so that he could stagger his way back towards the bathroom. He returned soon enough, and lapsed into the kind of chin-on-the-chest sleep that only comes with a lot of exhaustion or a lot of gin.
Eventually, the friendly German flight attendants brought us our first meal, which was chicken/spaghetti, a salad, a roll, and some dessert thing, which I didn't eat. One thing I will say about Lufthansa, the food is downright edible, and they give you whatever you want to drink, including various alcoholic beverages, at no charge. After eating, I sort of tried to sleep some more, though the Serbian was back, and I wasn't having much luck.
We were then shown two movies, The Stepford Wives and Dodgeball, both of which I'd already seen in the theatres. Being somewhat a Cinephile, watching movies in a 4:3 aspect ratio, edited for content, on a tiny worn-out screen with burn-in and color smearing didn't really appeal to me, so I tried to ignore them and get some sleep, though it didn't really work.
Eventually, they brough us our second meal, which was really just a snack, though it was tasty. I got a Calzone filled with some sort of red goo, but since it tasted good, I ate it all, though I'm not exactly sure what was in it, though I know there was at least some meat-like substance. I washed it down with a coke, and then waited the requisite hour that it seems to take before flight attendants will actually come get the empty food trays they gave you with your meals.
After a few more hours of clock-watching, we arrived in Chicago, where we sailed through Customs and Passport Control with no problems. We then had to re-check our bags for the flight to Cedar Rapids, where I was again asked to open the white equipment case so they could inspect it. They chastised me for packing the two bottles of vodka in my luggage, and I neglected to mention that I had another 6 packed in my other bag. The intersection where this took place is extremely confusing, even to Americans, and several of the faculty failed to negotiate it properly. You come down a hallway from Customs and passport control. Just to the left is a TSA baggage screening area, where they wiped my bag with the residue pads, and made me open it. But they only did the one bag, then had me go down farther to my left with the other bag, where another TSA guy glanced at it, and put it on a conveyer belt. There was a conveyer belt where they'd already placed the white case, but for some reason made me drag my suitcase down to another guy to be placed on the same belt, as far as I could tell. After this, you had to retrace your steps to a United ticket counter, where you could check in and get your boarding passes for the flight to Cedar Rapids, before finally going through the door which was straight ahead of you at the start, which leads to the monorail to the other terminals. Now, I was able to do this, only by studying the layout and watching everyone else ahead of me. There are approximately 50 TSA, Airline, and various security personnel all milling about in this area, and they just sort of randomly shout instructions at you, it must be a nightmare for a non-English speaker.
Once we cleared this area, we ran into Chuck's parents, who'd come to talk to him while we waited for our next flight. Chuck and I also learned that the flight time had been changed since we received our schedule, so we weren't leaving for an extra 45 minutes. I left him to catch up with his parents, and after going through security (again) I sought out a McDonald's to grab some lunch.
It was just a little after noon, and our original flight was supposed to leave around 2:40, arriving in Cedar Rapids at 3:40, where Todd would pick us up. The flight had been rescheduled to 3:20, so after Chuck caught up with his parents, he used his cell phone to attempt to notify Todd, but discovered it was too late, as Todd has already left for Cedar Rapids, and didn't notice his voice mail indicator on his cell phone until he got there. Well, we could handle a 40 minute delay, so we sat around and waited, watching CNN coverage of the presidential race on the TVs in the airport, and wishing that someone in O'Hare had the brains to install a Wi-Fi system.
United soon claimed our flight was actually leaving at 3:34, then changed that to 3:40. As 3:40 came around, and we hadn't even begun to board the plane, we realized that we weren't going to be getting home soon. Around 3:45 or so, we actually got on the plane, got everything situated, with Chuck and I located in the back two seats of the plane that didn't recline. We taxied out to the runway, got in the queue to take off, then abrubtly taxied back to the gate while the captain came on to explain that the plane was over the weight limit, and that we had to shed some weight.
It took about half an hour for them to kick off a few standby passengers who were airline employees, and remove some cargo, then we taxied back out to the runway, where we found ourselves in tenth place waiting to take off. By this point, we were actively disgruntled, as we could have rented a car at noon from Chicago and been home by 4:30, it was now 5:00, and we hadn't even got in the air yet.
We finally got airborne sometime after 5:00, though Chuck and I were so exhausted we were barely conscious. We slept for most of the hour-long flight home, though we briefly debated never flying anywhere again, and arrived to find Todd just outside the security checkpoint, having spent the last three and a half hours waiting for United to deliver us. We got our luggage, checked mine for signs of broken vodka bottles, and loaded up the UNI van for the trip home. Chuck and I were so happy to be nearly home that we managed to retain consciousness, and I arrived home around 7:30 to find my wife had put a Welcome Home banner in the front window for me. I lugged my stuff in, gave her a big hug, and then headed off to enjoy a warm shower and a good night's sleep in my own bed.
I'm home, and completely exhausted. Had one of the worst days of traveling in my life, and it was about 40 hours long. I'll write more about that later. I'm going to go take a hot shower now, and lapse into a coma.
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...
I got up Saturday to find I had no hot water, though I'm sort of getting used to this. I managed to get the trickle of lukewarm water collected in a glass that I could slowly shampoo my hair clean, and used a washcloth to tidy up the rest of me as best I could. I then went downstairs to meet Chuck and Rimma for a shopping excursion. We walked through several stores that sold hats, scouting for Dr. Vajpeyi, as he told us earlier he wanted to buy a Russian Hat, but not the crappy kind that they sell to tourists by the major attractions. One of the Russians told me that many of those are made from dog fur. Yuck.
We also walked into a store called 505 that sells all sorts of multimedia, such as CDs, DVDs, and Computer Games. This store advertises on TV, and is located just off Nevsky Prospect, but it's completely filled with pirated goods. They're generally clever fakes, with all the DVD cover art and the discs are even pressed, not burned, but they're all pirated. You can get movies for 120 roubles ($4), and computer games cost roughly the same. Audio CDs were 75 roubles, or about $2.50, and they have a pretty good selection.
I don't know how the movie studios or music publishers can sell their wares when the pirated goods are so cheaply available. You can buy legitimate DVDs in Russia, but they're about $20, so you can see why most people don't do it.
After 505, we went to a shopping mall of sorts. It's a bit different from the average U.S. mall, or the big mall we saw in Moscow. It's all one giant building, but all the shops are sort of combined. Take a shopping mall, empty it into a Wal-Mart sized building, then make it so that you have to pay for each section at a different register, and you'll get the idea.
I purchased a few bottles of Vodka and some chocolates, as well as a couple more postcards. Chuck did some souvenir shopping as well, and we wound up waiting at one counter for about 15 minutes, as the keeper of that area had left someone else to watch her shop, but that person wasn't actually authorized to sell us anything. Ahh, that Russian Customer Service experience.
Shopping in Russia is unique, even in grocery stores, most of the goods are kept behind counters, so you have to get the attention of the clerk, and then point out every single item you want to buy, as they gather them all for you. While this certainly prevents theft, it is far from efficient, and results in long lines even when goods are plentiful. One morning I wanted to buy some more water in the grocery shop adjacent to the hotel, as the St. Petersburg water is not safe to drink. I had to wait about 10 minutes while the woman in front of me did her grocery shopping, one item at a time, and the clerk scurried about the store retrieving the things the woman called out.
Many shops also have "helpers" who follow you about the store spying on you to make sure that you're not stealing something. They can help answer questions too, but that seems to be a secondary function, as they're obviously watching you the whole time, craning their necks to look around columns to make sure you're not pocketing something. Theft must be a major problem, as even things costing relatively little are often tagged with the anti-theft devices that we normally only see on expensive items in the States. For instance, each of the little 250-ruble bottles of Vodka I bought had to have their tags removed before I could leave the store.
After some more shopping, the three of us clink-clanked our way to an Italian restaurant on Nevsky prospect. We supressed a giggle when a young guy named Alexander promptly came up and announced to us in English that he'd be our waitress during our meal.
Chuck ordered some spaghetti with shrimp and black noodles, and I ordered a pepporoni and bacon pizza, which was quite good, they bake them there in a brick oven. We bought Rimma lunch too, as she'd put up with us dragging her everywhere, and we knew that if she had to pay herself she probably wouldn't be able to afford much to eat in this place, though it was pretty reasonable by U.S. standards, costing less than $10 for each of our lunches indvidually.
After lunch, Chuck and Rimma did a little more shopping and I returned to hotel, as I was already hauling enough stuff around. I then caught a quick nap, and was woken up by a cell phone call from Chris. He said that he was going to meet Katherine and Chris at a place called Patio Pizza to eat dinner and asked if I'd like to join. I said that I had a late lunch, but that I'd go have a coke or two, and maybe an appetizer or something, so we met up near Kazaan Cathedral a few minutes later.
Much to my surprise, Patio Pizza turned out to be the same place I ate lunch, I just hadn't tried to translate the Cyrillic at the time, and it was more upscale than a place called "Patio Pizza" sounds in English. So, I ordered a Coke and some garlic bread, and chatted with the others while they ate. For dessert I ordered a vanilla mousse, which turned out to be a cake topped with various berries, and it was quite tasty.
After dinner, Katherine and Chris wanted to go to 505, as they'd heard of it, but didn't know where it was. I guessed wrong on the cross street a couple of times, but eventually managed to lead them to it, where they added a few titles to their personal movie and music collections too.
I then said goodbye to them, and returned to my hotel to watch a movie on my laptop, and fall asleep at a reasonable hour.
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.
Thursday morning started with a trip (via the Metro) to the Fortress of Peter & Paul, where the city was founded in 1703. Our hosts had arranged a special tour of the mint that is housed there, which was pretty interesting. A young Russian woman named Tanya accompanied us, and she translated for the director of the mint museum as he showed us around the place. One of the artists who designs the coins and medallions was on hand too, and we admired his handiwork, and were presented with proof sets as gifts as we left. We then went to the cathedral of Peter & Paul, which is the final resting place of most of the Russian Czars and Czarinas. Peter The Great, Catherine The Great, and all the less-great monarchs are entombed there beneath the floor. They recently added the bodies of the last Czar, Nicholas II, and his family, who were murdered in the early 20th Century.
We caught the Metro back to Herzen, and bid farewell to Vladimir and Pitr, who had to return to MISiS in Moscow. We then met Marina, our guide for the latter portion of the day, and convinced her to let us swing by McDonald's for some lunch, as we hadn't had time to eat yet.
McDonald's here is about the same as anywhere else, though they charge you for ketchup, and the fries seem slightly slimmer. It's also cheaper than it is in the U.S., though not by a large amount. The restaurant was packed, as it's apparently a popular place amongst young Russians, as it's an affordable place to eat on their budgets. We bought Marina a strawberry milkshake to drink as Chuck and I wolfed down our Big Macs, which tasted just like any other Big Mac.
We then set off for the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The Spilled Blood is in reference to the church being on the location of the assassination of Alexander I. The actual cobblestones where he was blown up are still left undisturbed inside the building, through a hole in the cathedral floor. The church was a bit different from all the other ones we've seen, because it was never really a "working" church, it served more like a monument, though during the Soviet Era, it was used to store potatoes. Fortunately, much of the mosaic work survived, though the marble floor did not. The church has been fully restored now though.
After the tour, we were returning to Herzen when we spotted Anna, our guide from the Russian Museum. We caught up to her, and had some time to give both her and Marina a few of the small UNI-branded gifts we brought with us, plus I unloaded a package of Twizzlers on each of them, which they seemed to enjoy.
Anna then asked us to join her for coffee, but Chuck begged off. Dr. Vajpeyi was around though, and he joined Anna and I at Lenin's Mating Call (which is porno-free during the day) for a couple of drinks and conversation. It turns out that Anna has traveled quite extensively, as she also works as a fashion model (which came as no suprise, given her height and good looks).
After about an hour, we said goodbye to Anna, and picked Chuck up to go out for dinner. We walked in a new direction of the city and located a Rock and Roll club that looked promising. Unfortunately, they wanted 100 roubles each for us to enter, and wouldn't show me the menu at the door. I told them I wasn't going to pay money when I just wanted to look at the menu so that I could decide whether or not I wanted to eat there. This is probably the best example of how many Russian restaurants and businesses haven't really mastered good customer service yet.
We decided to skip that place on principle, and walked another few blocks before finding a fairly upscale restaurant decorated in pink and silver. They had menus in English posted, so we went in and ordered. I had spaghetti, Chuck had salmon, and Dr. Vajpeyi had some veal, I think. The food was good, though the waitress was constantly coming over to rearrange our knives and forks, taking some away, bringing others, when many of them had never even been used. It was sort of amusing, since we could discern no pattern to when certain knives and forks were taken away, and others were brought. The meal was pretty good, though expensive, I think it was around 2000 roubles for the three of us, which is over $60, and we didn't even have any alcohol.
We then wandered our way back to Herzen, where I turned in for a night's rest, having been out late enough the night before.
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 Blogger.com, 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.