Random Observations on Russia

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: so much happens every day that I feel like I need to live for a day, then take a day off just to gather my thoughts and blog. Of course that's not going to happen, but I have been trying to note down little things. It's hard to tie them all together into a coherent post, so I'm just going to throw them down here completely randomly.

- The faces really are different. I notice it in men mostly - the high, wide Slavic cheekbones and very little facial hair. And it feels like every man in Russia has the same haircut. Also, Russian women seem tall to me. I'm used to being unusually tall, and I'm not here. Or maybe it's just that they always wear high heels.

- Riding the bus for 3 hours from Moscow to Vladimir was like being in northern Canada - lots of trees, a mix of conifers and deciduous - punctuated by high tension power lines. We passed small towns that seem as forgotten as any on the road to Waskesiu, except that the churches have an onion domes and the cottagey houses on the sides of the road have distinctly eastern touches around the windows and gables.

House through the trees

- Public toilets often charge for use, usually about R20 in Moscow and larger centres, R10 in small towns. Toilet paper is sometimes provided with payment, sometimes in a big roll outside the stalls, sometimes missing entirely. Toilet seats are apparently optional. There are also usually lines of porta-potties in parks and public areas, and they're tended by someone who collects payment for them. These attendants always have one of the units set up as a sort of office, where they can shelter if it rains, and keep cleaning supplies and useful items on hand. It's funny to think about someone using a porta-potty as an office, but the whole system works pretty well and the attendant keeps the other units from getting horrible.

The usual configuration, this one is outside Mikhailovsky Castle

- Most of the big buildings here are painted in bright colours instead of being left bare like I'm used to seeing. They're not actually stone - mostly they're brick covered in stucco, but the effect is still striking, especially in St. Petersburg, where they are every colour of the rainbow.

The Winter Palace (home of part of the Hermitage), a lovely shade of green

- It turns out that there isn't just one Kremlin. "Kremlin" actually means fortress, so most cities and towns have a kremlin. In fact, asking someone who's been to Russia if they've seen The Kremlin is a bit like asking someone who's been to England if they've seen The Castle.

The outer walls of the Novgorod Kremlin

- After spending the last two months in the UK and Ireland, where almost every square inch of the tiny islands is inhabited and manicured, Russia feels vast and sort of unkempt. It's not dirty, but I guess there's just so much of it that there's no way you could cover the whole place with wrought iron fences and hedgerows and such. In fact, it's more like home in that respect.

- I haven't seen many people walking dogs. Most of the dogs I've seen look like they're feral and only half a step from wolfishness. Also, it's popular to have wild animals on display. Here's a shot of one of two bear cubs being handled by a couple of guys outside the Hermitage. There were also two monkeys and an eagle nearby.

Aw... cute. At least for another few months, after which there will probably be a story in the St. Petersburg Times-Chronicle about how this guy was mauled to death because he fell asleep with a Mars Bar in his pocket.

- In some ways Cyrillic is actually easier than English because each character only makes one sound, and you pronounce every letter. I'm getting the hang of it, and even managed to order a whole meal by myself after reading the menu in Russian! It was CYШИ, one of my favourites. "ДВА СУШИ ТУНЕЦИ, ПОЖАЛУЙСТА". Still, I really have to concentrate to get my brain to say "R" when it sees "P". Or "V" when it sees "B". My favourite characters are the Җ (the zh sound in "leisure") and the Ц ("ts") and the Ш ("sh") and the Ф ("f"). It's way easier to remember letters for which you have no previous preconceptions.

- There are these little kiosks everywhere (in fact, I think "kiosk" may be a Russian word). They're self-contained shops that sit on the sidewalk, and they have stuff plastered in the windows to show what's for sale. Some of them have so much crap in the windows that you have to peer into a tiny opening to tell the person what you want. This means you can't just point, which means you have to know how to pronounce what you want, which is annoying. Luckily "Kit Kat" sounds the same in Russian.

A kiosk, with empty window space - a rarity.

- We've seen approximately 7 squillion bridal parties having pictures taken at the sights we've been to. On the Saturday we arrived in St. Petersburg we did a walking tour and once we got to the touristy areas you could hardly move for the brides everywhere. I have to believe that jockeying for space with 14 other brides at the castle / statue / bridge / monument to Lenin makes the day seem slightly less special. Then again the lax open-container liquor laws make the whole thing a lot more jolly.

- Some stations in the St. Petersburg Metro have walls that separate the platform from the tracks, and sets of doors in the walls that line up with the doors of the train. Waiting on the platform makes it feel a bit like you're waiting for one of 40 different elevators to arrive. (No pictures of this, because one of our group took a picture in the Metro and was chastised by a Metro Cop with a large hat.*)

- Every room in every museum has some kind of attendant in it (Seriously - every room. And I don't know if you know this, but the Hermitage is BIG. And there was someone in every room). I'm not sure if this is for security or just to give people jobs or what, but there's always a chair sitting in a corner (usually with a sweater over it) and a bored looking babushka type waiting to pounce on you if you get too close to anything. They are kind of intimidating and make me feel a bit like they think I'm going to pee on the carpet. Then again, sometimes they turn out to be really nice, and tell you all about the exhibits, like in the Museum of the Seige of Leningrad. The woman there really tried to give me the low-down but it mostly was like this: "Russian Russian Russian... blockade... Russian Russian Russian Russian ... road of life... Russian Russian Russian Leningrad Russian Russian ... small bread... Russian Russian".

A typical specimen, shown in her natural habitat

- The Russians have done a really tricky thing with the words for "entrance" and "exit". There's only one character different between the two, and the pronunciation is very similar. ВXOД is entrance, pronounced "vkhod"**. ВblXOД is exit, pronounced "veekhod". That's a bit like saying "exit" for exit and "ext" for entrance. Bastards. It's like they're deliberately trying to make things confusing. All in all, I've just about had it with Cyrillic. Right now I feel like saying, "Ok, you've had your fun. Can you get out the proper letters now please?"

- I mentioned it above, but Hermitage is really big, and overwhelming, and the place is positively lousy with tourists, most of whom seem to blast through as part of big tour groups led by a harreid guide waving some kind of distinguishing flag, fan, flower or other notable item. Still, it's got a posh room or two, and a few paintings by some people you may have heard of (Da Vinci, Raphael, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso blah blah blah.) It's all way too much to take in, and I had a two-day ticket***, which helped some, since I didn't feel like I had to see all at once. Even so, after the 4th or 5th gilded stateroom, or the 20th Picasso, it's like things are going in one eye and out the other. I was happy to leave this afternoon to go see the freak show at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography.

Like I said... lousy with tourists

Then again, there are some pretty impressive rooms. I don't even remember what this one was called, except I know it wasn't the Gold Room, because the Gold Room had WAY more gold.

- And really, it's nice to be back on the right side of the road.

And that was Russia. I'm off to Denmark tomorrow, where I get my alphabet back, even if it will be sprinkled liberally with extraneous slashes and dots and things. And I fear my days of 60 cent beer are over for a long long time.

* There seem to be a lot of people in uniform around and it's impossible to tell which ones have the authority to shoot you and which ones might be the equivalent of a mall cop. However, any hats that go with the uniforms are usually the size of a hubcap.)

** The kh is the throat-clearing sound in the Scottish pronunciation of "loch". Or the sound of having something furry stuck in your throat, as I have mentioned before.

*** Big big big tip for anyone who is thinking of going to the Hermitage: BUY YOUR TICKET ONLINE BEFORE YOU GET THERE. The lineup to get in can be beyond horrendous. On Tuesday it wound, two or three people wide, through the central courtyard and out into Dvortsovaya Square, and it was not moving much. People must have been standing there for hours. If you order online they send you a PDF to print that lets you jump that queue, swan in through the Exit doors and present your voucher at the information desk. It's brilliant. No, wait. It's VITAL.


Chris said...

Great post! Funny! I loved the part where you spoke to the babushka..."she said, russian russian russian...blockade...russian..." haha!

Jane said...

Hi Pam! Hope you're having fun in Denmark.



Lisa said...

I seriously would have been tempted to pee on the carpet myself...;0)

Heather Moore said...

Wow look at the tourists! Holy crap! The Hermitage has one of the best collections of impressionist art around. But I'm surprised there are that many tourists. I'm getting antsy just looking at the picture.

Great post tho. Looking forward to hearing about Denmark.

Karen said...

Reminds me of the bathrooms in Cuba. There are always bathroom attendants and you sometimes get three squares of tissue for a couple of pesos, if you're lucky. Hmmm, Russia to Cuba. It actually all makes sense now.

Ian Timshel said...

I'm with Lisa.

Robert Hamilton said...

Not that you were un-cool before, but it is very obvious to me that your trip is helping you to become a way cooler person. I love the style of your blog.

I like the sum-up the experience of the whole country posting you do at the end of each chapter of your trip. These kind of seemingly unimportant observations are wonderful and thoughtful.

Keep on truckin'

Post a Comment