October 21, 2008

St. Petersburg (Petrograd, Leningrad), Russia

Feeling like my bruised spine was finally up to the task of a Russian border crossing, it was time to part ways with my lovely friends in Riga and head out of town on the train to St. Petersburg. I was feeling on guard as I had friend, family and fellow traveler’s warnings tainting my thoughts, “They will give you hell at the border, it might take hours”, “The police will scam you for money”, “Drivers will run you over”, “People won’t help you“, “No one speaks English”, “Don’t walk the streets at night, you will get robbed”, “ and my favorite, “Be careful, they sell girls like you into slavery!” (Wow! even at 34?) This was always followed by the ever encouraging, “Hey, have a great time, Russia is fantastic!”, which always left me with a dazed and confused ”huh?” planted on my face.
I entered my overnight train cabin, which is a bit like playing…well, Russian Roulette, as you just never know who you will be sharing such a confined and intimate space with; do they like the bright lamp on all night? Did they forget to wash their socks, their underwear, or even worse, themselves? Do they listen to Russian pop music on their ipod without headphones? Do they talk on their mobile at deafening levels to their entire family for three maybe four hours? Do they chow down on boiled eggs, beans and canned herring for dinner, which resurface as other elements later in the night? Or do they quietly read a newspaper or book by the low headlight over their bed as they kindly ask you to share some cheese and crackers? It is really luck of the draw and sometimes you will be leaving with a new friend while at other times you will request a gun from the attendant so you can debate about who gets shot, them or you.
Valery was sitting calmly with a newspaper and a bottle of port. We made the first pleasantries and when I asked if he was Russian, he replied in an understandable but broken English that he didn’t quite know what he was, which in other words means, “thanks for the identity crisis Stalin.” I already knew his predicament from visits to the Occupation Museums in the Baltic States, but as we shared port wine and talked politics as the train made a steady rhythm in our peaceful cabin, his story of relocation in the years after WWII personalized an event I had only read about on tag cards. He was born in Russia, went to the first years of school in Russia, but was forced to relocate and “Russiafy” Latvia after the Soviet’s occupation of the Baltic States and because of this, he sometimes didn’t feel so Russian. Our conversation flowed in and out of politics, personal life and geography of which, because of the slight language barrier, he spent considerable time drawing me maps to explain certain points. As the border crossing neared, I made sure to have all my papers neatly in order and paste a wide and pleasant grin on my face in case I should need it to try to charm an unhappy guard, but other than the questions to Valery in Russian about the suspicious hand drawn map on the table to which he replied that he was just highlighting all the good beer bars in the country, the passing went quickly, smoothly and without incident leaving us plenty of time to get back to our ballistic missile discussions.
I was told not to miss St. Petersburg, and I would have if I chose to get new crowns on my teeth in the Czech Republic, and so, upon arrival, when my senses became extremely entertained by all the surrounding beauty, I was happy I chose new experience/location over vanity. Although being home to many spectacular museums, the world famous Louve-competitor of the Hermitage and Winter Palace among them, the city itself feels like one big open-air museum with it’s grand and intricate architecture, the Neva and Fontanka rivers connecting ornate bridges to surrounding islands and leading into street canals lined with small boats while spires and colorful onion domes from some of the many orthodox churches break through the skyline, and domestic courtyards and public parks house manicured lawns, gravel pathways and statues and monuments of every kind. I found myself content just walking the streets in the sunny and mild tempered fall weather, soaking up Russia, while I acclimated to my new environment. When I went to get food, locals spoke English and were smiling. When I asked for directions in the Metro station, the ticket woman happily assisted me. When I crossed the streets, no one was waiting to run me over with their car. People were enjoying themselves. Young brides were getting married all over town – on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. There was street music mixed with a relaxed “seaside”, or rather “canalside”, vibe and I was wondering where all the mean, unhelpful people were. Wasn’t I supposed to splayed in the middle of an intersection or robbed or scamed or sold by now? Actually, wait, wasn’t I supposed to still be at the border crossing, piling hours onto my entrance?
Just as in Syria, I was confronted again with the reality that all people do not represent their governments and while the big guys up in the Kremlin may still think Americans are spies, the citizens I encountered did not and they greeted me warmly. We tend to form our opinions, categorize and make sweeping generalizations about places based largely on the political and/or religious dealings that we read about in the papers or watch on television or calculate from past historical events, never actually experiencing firsthand what the temperature of the local human climate feels like. My travels here are breaking down my own misguided and uninformed stereotype that Russians are unfriendly bullies, because while maybe the country has parts of it’s written history along these lines, it is not only the people of other countries who have gotten pushed around but also the citizens of it’s very own soil. On the first day, feeling the openness to which I was received, I released a deep breath of relief and let my guard fall down to normal travel levels realizing that the delayed border crossing was not geographical, but rather one which existed in own mind between perception and reality.

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