Our trip to Russia was quite the experience! Stephanie, Hannah and I woke up early Sunday morning and walked to Norreport Station to grab the metro to the airport. Our flight to St. Petersburg was only about two hours. At the airport I had a very rude experience with a woman who didn’t want to exchange my Danish kroner for Russian rubles (30 rubles = $1). Our bus never arrived to take us to our Holiday Inn so we all took taxis. The taxi ride was terrifying! I sat in the death seat and prayed for my life as the taxi driver drove like a maniac to the hotel, driving side by side cars in the same lane on ramps on the highway in order to get around them. Luckily we made it there safely! In the afternoon we had a nice walking tour of the city with our class and our amazing tour guides Jon and Mette where they pointed out the major sites. We took the metro to get everywhere. The metros in both St. Petersburg and Moscow are incredibly beautiful because during the time of the Soviet Union the government wanted to “give the working class palaces of their own”-underground. It was common to take the incredibly long escalators down (St. Petersburg has the deepest metro system in the world) and see incredible sculptures, mosaics, and marble and granite walls. One of the most interesting things we did was stop in an Orthodox church for their late afternoon service. The inside of the church was breath-taking, with even more breathtaking music being sung from somewhere I could not locate. Everyone stood dispersed through the church as there were no chairs or pews. The girls had to cover our heads (the boys removed their hats) and we could not keep our hands in our pockets, or stand in a too relaxed fashion. Otherwise, Jon told us, an old Russian lady would come over and start shaking her finger at us and yelling at us in Russian. Considering how this religious institution and the government it was intertwined with is what forced my great-grandfather who was jewish, and who I am named for, to flee Russia, it was a pretty interesting experience to be there.
For dinner we had a traditional Russian meal at Cafe Jam, which consists of taking vodka shots with dinner followed by large pickle chunks as chasers and lots of courses revolving around cabbage. In Russia it is completely taboo to drink vodka without food. Hannah and I sat near Jon the whole evening and picked his brain about what it’s like to translate between the Queen of Denmark and Putin (the “newly” elected President). After dinner we went back to the hotel and crashed for the evening. You’re not supposed to drink water from the tap in Russia because it is polluted with a crazy amount of lithium, so we had to concentrate to keep our mouths shut in the shower and brush our teeth with water bottles! The hotel collected our passports to keep them safe when we checked in as well.
Monday morning we woke early for a yummy breakfast at the hotel and spent the rest of the day seeing various sites, taking the bus, walking, and using the metro. We explored the Peter and Paul Cathedral as well as the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. This is surprisingly one of the “newer” cathedrals in Russia, and it was breathtakingly beautiful inside and out. I decided to buy a watercolor painting of it on the street. For lunch we had more traditional Russian food at a very nice restaurant (they only serve Russian food in Russia) which had cabbage salad as a first course and cabbage soup as a second course. After lunch we broke off into interest groups, and Hannah and I decided to join Jon on a walk around the city discussing architecture differences between buildings of the communist era and those before and after the communist era. In the evening Hannah and I skipped dinner and instead got a bottle of wine at the hotel and talked to some more people on the trip in the four different restaurants and cafes they had there!
Wednesday morning we took the bus to the Winter Palace and Hermitage Collection, which may have been my favorite thing I have seen since being abroad this semester. The Winter Palace reminded me of Versailles in it’s grandness and beauty. The Hermitage Collection had an outstanding assortment of art. What was especially fun was to see certain artworks we have discussed in great detail in my 20th Century European Art History class this semester, such as Matisse’s “Dance” which is pictured below. Jon was an incredible tour guide, and we all had headpieces we could listen to him on while we wandered through the palace on our own. I had a delicious chocolate pastry in the museum cafe before we got back on the bus for a guided tour planned by Jon entitled “St. Petersburg: Behind the Fascades.”
The students in our class broke into four groups and so I went off with Barbara to explore some of the more depressing and dirty aspects of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was originally built as a way to bridge Russia with the rest of Europe; the buildings are all designed to imitate those of the major cities in western europe. As you walk around St. Petersburg you see beautiful town homes and apartment buildings but what you don’t see are the run-down rooms inside and the backs of the buildings which are dilapidated and ugly. Barbara first took us to a market run by people from the south of Russia (who sadly happen to be the most poor). While I was there I bought some pickles (Russian pickles are fantastic)-the deal was two for 50 rubles but when she saw how excited I was the woman gave me 5!
After that Barbara took us to a friend of a friend’s who lived in a communal living space, which is very similar to those used during the Soviet Union. We learned in class that under the Soviet regime each person was assigned a certain amount of “space” they were entitled to- for example, a grown man was entitled to 9.5 square meters of air. A young child or an elderly person would be assigned a different measurement of space. Based on these measurements, people of varying economic classes were dispersed throughout the city, the government intending to place people of varying classes immediately next to one another. Because of this living structure people cared solely for their own space and did absolutely no work on the space surrounding their own. Therefore kitchen areas, hallways, bathrooms, stairwells, etc. fell into complete disrepair. The apartment building we visited used to be the home to a wealthy family of four but during Soviet times was turned into an apartment building for communal living. As we entered I quickly noticed the hundreds of wires hanging out of the walls, the dust, dirt, paint, and mud caked to the walls, and the beautiful trim on the walls that now looks melted due to mold, water damage and dust. We went upstairs and saw Simon’s room, and also were introduced to one of the other tenants, five year old Anastasia, who was absolutely adorable.
Following our visit to Simon’s apartment we went to a Soviet Union collector’s items shop, spent some time in a fancy pastry store, had a georgian dinner (VERY small portions)and then got on the overnight train to Moscow! The train was pretty crowded with four people with huge bags in each compartment but I slept like a baby with the rumbling of the train.
In the morning we got a huge breakfast at a hotel, went to the Red Square, saw the mausoleum where Lenin is embalmed, saw the outside of St. Basil’s Cathedral, and then headed to the hotel for a shower and nap before meeting up with Russian students for dinner.
For dinner we were introduced to Kate and Sasha, who went food shopping with us and then cooked us a lovely dinner at Sasha’s family’s apartment. Sasha is an art student and Kate studies linguistics. We had great conversations about the differences between Russia and the U.S. They smoked cigarettes five different times over the five hours we were with them which was a pretty different experience from hanging out with anyone in the U.S.! We had a lovely time and invited them to our farewell dinner in the city on Friday night. Sasha’s GORGEOUS boyfriend Fasil joined us for a little while at the end of dinner which was a treat for all of the girls haha, including Sasha and Kate!
Thursday was a big exploring day. It snowed overnight and so the weather was pretty dreadful. We hiked up a small mountain to get a great view of Moscow and explored various other buildings in the city. I have to admit that I didn’t particularly like Moscow; it was dirty, not as pretty as St. Petersburg architecturally and the people looked suicidal/homicidal! The weather probably did not help but I was very excited to get back to Copenhagen that day! In the evening we saw a ballet at the new theater which was unfortunately disappointing. I was expecting a mainstage ballet performance like something out of “Black Swan” but we saw a more modern dance sequence with almost no scenery. The people again were very rude and unfriendly, and one usher spent the first fifteen minutes of the performance harassing people to sit in their appropriate seats.
Friday, our last day in Russia, we had one final delicious breakfast a the hotel followed by shopping at the market around the corner from our hotel. I bought myself a pretty music box and some gifts for my family. Next I went with a group to the Russian National Gallery, which had some Kandinsky paintings (Kandinsky is my favorite). We met back a the Red Square for a tour of St. Basil’s Cathedral (no comparison to the cathedral on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg) and the inside of the Kremlin. We were only allowed to tour the Kremlin if we signed up for a tour guide, and unfortunately we had the most TERRIBLE tour guide you could imagine. Her english was terrible and the information she shared with us was even worse. As important as this area of the prior Soviet Union is, it was also pretty underwhelming to see the inside of. There were a few religious buildings as well as some other random buildings. I think it’s more of a thrill to be able to say that you’ve been inside the red brick walls of the Kremlin than to actually explore its’ insides.
Following the tour of the Kremlin we met with a member of the opposition at an internet based newspaper which was interesting. For dinner we had a delicious meal down the street from the new theater, and Jon was nice enough to tell us we could order unlimited wine and beer with our Russian friends who joined us! It was a wonderful evening with great conversation. The next morning we woke up early (6:00 am) to get the bus to the airport and fly home to Copenhagen!
Yesterday Hannah and I caught up on emails, skype and facebook, booked our hostels for Barcelona and got some rest. This morning we went to a great restaurant down the street from Hannah’s called the “Laundromat Cafe” in Norrebo where I had an outstanding vegetarian brunch. Tonight more planning for Spain, packing and then it’s off to Barcelona tomorrow afternoon!