Here's a tip if you find yourself preparing for a trip to a part of the world you know little about. Read enough to be smartly informed, but not so much as to scare yourself into paranoia.
Such was my mistake in Russia.
I was so excited for this visit and considered it as an early contender for 'high point' in our year of travel. With two bucket list items on the agenda, it was a dream destination. I had spent many hours researching the city and I knew to be cautious, but I definitely wasn't afraid going in.
So you can understand my disappointment and frustration that St. Petersburg would be the site of my first on-the-road meltdown. Yep, a full blown freak out. I didn't lose it immediately, however, and it was a combination of things that pecked away until the blow out.
My excitement and confidence were at their peaks as I stood waiting to depart the ship. Behind me, a Canadian family with two kids around 7 and 10 were chatting about what they were going to see, and I asked if they were taking the shuttle into the city to which the mother responded they had a personal tour guide picking them up at the terminal. 'You're touring the city on your own?' she questioned, in an incredulous tone. 'Wow, you're braver than I am.'
Brave? Lady, please! I've navigated the globe with grit and savvy. I've dealt with plenty of on-the-road shenanigans- strikes, demonstrations, riot police, food poisoning and countless weirdos, to name a few. I'm a travel ninja. Besides, I thought, this is a well-traveled western tourist destination, not Kabul. But as the door opened into the port, I knew the seed of fear had been planted.
The seed germinated as I passed through customs. Now, I certainly did not expect a parade and balloons as I entered the country, but didn't think it would be overly onerous either. HA, silly American fool! The officer looked down at my passport photo, then up at me, what seemed to be a dozen times before she proceeded to slowly pore through every page in my passport. She then repeated this again. And again. Then, she began to deliberately photocopy each page of my passport. After about 20 minutes, which is an eternity in a long line with people glaring at you, she disdainfully slid my passport back at me with one finger.
Welcome to Russia!
Finally outside the terminal, the sky was dark with rain. A man wearing what can only be described as a 'Russian Gangster Starter Kit' (tight capri jogging pants, leather jacket, newsboy cap) was smoking as he leaned against the front of a run-down van with a cracked windshield. The side of the van read 'City Shuttle' in English. I approached him for the following riveting conversation.
- 'Excuse me,' I said, smiling. 'Is this the St. Peter Line shuttle?'
- 'Where you go,' he questioned as he looked at us with suspicion.
- 'Um, St. Isaac's Square,' I said as I held out my tour ticket.
He didn't look at my ticket. He looked at me, stone-faced and paused. 'Get in,' he finally said with a hint of menace while motioning to the van with his thumb.
Perry and I boarded the empty van and sat with our heavy packs on our laps. We are getting pretty good at speaking without words and looked at each other silently while communicating 'Is this guy for real or is this the van headed for Siberia?'
The remaining passengers somberly entered the van, reinforcing the 'trip to the Gulag' atmosphere. No one was speaking. Half the curtains on the van were pulled, which obstructed my view, but I could see we were driving through some very rough and deserted neighborhoods. Traffic began to thicken as we crossed the River Neva into the main city, and while I could see some of the famous sites poking up in the skyline, I was struck by how grimy everything is, like the city is covered in a film. There is definitely a push for renovations, with plenty of scaffolding up, but a severe recession has slowed improvements needed to many of the city's buildings. Yes, you could say the city is full of character, but overall, 'spiffy' will not be in the descriptive vernacular of St. Petersburg anytime soon.
My enthusiasm was still in good supply when the van stopped in front of St. Isaac's Square. St. Isaac's Cathedral is an imposing Orthodox church with a dome that reminded me of the US Capitol and it turns out that indeed, St. Isaac's design not only influenced the US Capitol, but also the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison and Helsinki Cathedral. However, there was no time to ponder or take a picture as it was starting to rain. We knew that our hotel was a bit of a haul and our plan was to walk until we found an ATM, so we could confidently sit in a cafe (where cash is always accepted) and wait out the rain.
That first walk down Nevsky Prospect was something I will not forget-- but not in a good way. There was something about the combination of dour faces, harsh tones of the language and faded buildings that chipped off a large chunk of my initial excitement. In eloquent terms, it was a major bummer.
Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. Speaking of language, how is it that some of the most inspiring literature and beautiful prose ever written has come from a land where the words sound so unbelievably angry?
We finally stopped at a crowded bank lobby to use the ATM (complete with gestapo-style security) and withdrew the largest amount we could, 3000 rubles, hoping I wouldn't have to go through this exercise again. It was only when we walked out did my mental currency conversion reveal the amount to be a highly inadequate $45.
Nothing in Russia was going to be easy.
After we dropped our bags at the hotel, I had one destination in mind- Winter Palace / the Hermitage Museum. It's been a dream to visit the home of the Tsars as I'm a bit of a Russian monarchy buff.
I had read that the lines to get into the Hermitage were long and the museum itself very crowded, so I was pleasantly surprised when we got behind one other person at the ticket office and breezed right in. I was convinced the short wait meant the museum wasn't busy, but that was wishful thinking. It was an absolute crush of people, mostly with iPads and GoPros held above their heads recording every bloody inch of the place instead of actually looking at it with their own eyes. Instantly irritated, it became a game for us to weave in and out of galleries, backtracking when necessary, just to avoid a crowded room. We were lucky enough to find peace and quiet in a few unpopular rooms where I sat down and savored the visual delights as best I could. It took every ounce of mental energy to focus on what I was seeing and block out the noise, but eventually, I was worn out from being pushed around by tour groups and we left after two measly hours.
Not exactly the dream I imagined [sigh].
Outside, we breathed easy, thinking the pushy madness was behind us, but soon a new obstacle emerged- aggressive canal boat ticket sellers. Usually a polite smile and shake of the head works, but not for these guys. They follow you until you give them a firm and loud, nyet! Initially, I thought we would take a canal boat tour, but the pushiness of the ticket sellers turned me off so badly, I wouldn't give them the satisfaction of believing that such tactics work. Immature, I know.
That night, I mused on my first day observations. After a couple of weeks in Scandinavia, Russia definitely looked and felt unbelievably foreign by comparison, with a harsh edge that didn't allow me to relax outside our hotel room. Mostly, I noticed that when Perry and I spoke to each other on the street, we would catch looks that in most foreign cities would be characterized as curious, but in St. Petersburg appeared stern and/or pissy.
But was it real or just in my head? In the US, the Cold War taught us that Russia is a dangerous place. Russians seem to be the stereotypical villains in so many movies- Rocky IV, Air Force One and Goldeneye to name a few. Yet, long after the fall of communism, Russia vs USA is still a popular theme, such as the recent WWE story line of Rusev, a Russophillc, anti-American character. As a result, just being in Russia feels forbidden or at the very least, a bit naughty.
After a good night's sleep, I regained my enthusiasm and enjoyed a morning of sightseeing, taking in such marvels as the Russian Museum, Mikhailovsky Gardens and the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, where the ticket seller actually smiled at me!
Afterwards, we stopped for tea and cake at Yeliseev's Food Hall, an impossibly pretty department store and cafe with red velvet couches, elaborately gilded walls and a grand piano playing classical music. It felt like being inside a music box.
As we walked back to our hotel, the disappointment of Day One evaporated. Maybe Russia wasn't so bad after all?! And things were about to get better as we still had tickets to the ballet that night.
But just as I was beginning to get all warm and fuzzy, I noticed two soldiers in blue camouflage pull a man to the side for a 'random' passport check. When I first noticed the heavy presence of police stationed along Nevsky Prospect, I was oddly relieved, which then turned to puzzlement as to why they wore so many different outfits. Some were dressed in military uniforms of solid green or blue and others donned the not-very-camouflaging blue camo, but all wore thick boots and carried big guns.
Back at the hotel, I had time to spare before our evening out, so I went online to investigate. What started as a search on Russian police uniforms, turned into articles about random passport checks (actually not so random, with racial profiling and bribes the main motivation) and then further articles about St. Petersburg's history as crime capital of Russia.
What was it that I said in my opening statement? Oh yes, digging up the dark side during a visit to a new city is a bad idea. As we headed out for our night on the town, I had these gems swirling in my head, courtesy of the US State Department.
- Surveillance and data monitoring
As a result, travelers should assume communications are monitored and should have no expectation of privacy. Visitors should assume that host government personnel could monitor their movements and conversations. Discretion should be exercised at all times and in all places.
- Police detention
Police do not need to show probable cause in order to stop, question, or detain individuals. Persons stopped by police for routine identification checks should remain courteous in dealing with officers and be respectful.
- Anti-American/Western sentiment
Visitors should be aware that speaking English or wearing clothing or items that clearly identify them as U.S. citizens may subject them to additional attention from local residents.
To recap, no Putin jokes on Facebook, if stopped by the police, don't ask if this is retaliation over Drago getting beat in Rocky IV, and try to leave your 'these colors don't run' shirt at home.
I didn't have much time to think about it as I had to go to the ballet, dahling. Due to the distance to Mariinsky, we had decided to take a taxi there and a combination of walking and metro to get back afterwards.
The Mariinsky Ballet, still better known by its former Soviet name the Kirov Ballet, lived up to its reputation as being one of the best in the world. I was in awe of the physicality of the performers, the world class orchestra and the stunning environs of the Mariinsky Theater. We saw Spartacus and I've attached a couple of clips (from YouTube) here and here. I was still in a swoon when we left the theater and wasn't paying close attention to the route we were taking to the metro. We were chatting away when suddenly, it was dark and the crowds had disappeared. After a frosty glance from a passerby, I remembered the comment online about speaking English and drawing 'additional attention'.
Perry had been asking me questions about the various acts in the performance and became perplexed when I stopped responding. He started to ask what was wrong, but I cut him off. 'Let's not talk,' I said as I began to speed walk.
He tried to reassure me. 'Are you scared? Because there are people all around, and even plenty of women walking by themselves!'
You know when you are angry, and you know you are being ridiculous, which then makes you even angrier? Well, that was me. By the time we exited the metro station, I had allowed my fears to snowball until I made myself so upset, I couldn't think. Then, I saw those golden arches.
I know everyone says this, but I don't visit McDonald's very often. Which is strange because that place is still raking it in, so if no one is going, I can't figure out how they stay in business. Anyway, when I do, it's a cheeseburger for me. I can say with certainty, that I had not ordered a Big Mac in over 20 years.
But at that moment, it was exactly what I wanted. I suddenly realized I wasn't scared, I was hungry and tired of feeling like I had to remain silent. I walked right up to that counter and loudly requested 'Big Mac, please!' Oh, what the hell, I thought. 'And fries and a Coke.' No pissy look, no confusion, no judgment. I took my tray of American goodness to a corner and as I devoured it, I felt myself return to normal. A classy end to our night at the ballet.
We left the following day, which is too bad, because after that Big Mac, I felt strangely at home. I didn't care how anyone looked at me when I spoke. The Russians did get the last laugh, however. I had the same officer stamp me out at the customs exit, which turned out to be a repeat of my entry, except it took longer. I mean, I'm leaving, what exactly is the point of this except to let me know not to let the door hit me in the rear on the way out?
I took it in stride though, I still had special sauce coursing through my veins.
Photo essay via my Facebook page