Winter Specials

September 5, 2008

Die-hard clubbers and ice-fishermen share an invisible bond: it’s them and not the morning factory shift who fill in the first Metro train at the break of dawn; an intersection, where both sleep-deprived groups merge before going off their separate ways. There is no further understanding between them: just like heroin addicts, ice fishermen recognize only their own kind and, unless you are one of them, you meet the wall when you look into their eyes.
My memory has the record of the only time this crack in the social sidewalk was bridged. A friend of mine, the drummer in a band, was coming from an all-nighter. He was carrying bits of a drum-kit. The guy sitting opposite had some massive drills on him. They checked each other’s tools with mutual respect.
Indeed, no matter what mind-altering substances are consumed by an average clubber on a night out, compared to the state of mind of an ice-fisherman (imagine all the Zen of fishing multiplied by the cold of a winter morning, plus all the future uncertainty a fresh ice cover may offer) its all just chicken-shit.

Sadly, local ice-fishermen are a dying breed, winters in St. Pete are not as cold as they used to be, in fact they, just like the Russian Christmas, are no more (someone was really bad, I guess). What we have instead of a winter is five months of misery: its still dark when its time to get up for work and its already dark when its time to go home. The air is nice and warm, thanks to the heavy through traffic and seriously damp as well, thanks to the heavy through traffic again. Consequently it might be only minus five but it feels deadly (just like when you get out of the shower and the room feels seriously cold, do you know what I mean?).
People of St. Petersburg generally spend their winters in, hugging radiators and counting the days to the first sunshine. Outdoors isn’t fun anymore, the gray and slushy muck that covers pavements can only be classed as a parody of real snow.
When I was a kiddie we used to scoot on black ice and do cross-country skiing in the suburbs. Nowadays, the only bit of winter activity that is still on offer in St. Petersburg is the ice-skating. There is an ice-skating rink directly on Dvortsovaya and some other rinks set up in most parks around and out of town.

However, if you want a real Russian winter you have to chase it. This means going Tundra. But don’t just go anywhere, my friend, shop around. Kamchatka along with mount Elbrus guarantee some of the best skiing/snowboarding adventures. Lake Baikal is sure to provide some breathtaking scenery to go with its dog-sledding. Ekaterinburg is famous for its “Troika” rides and other romantic winter escapades.

To be perfectly frank, Siberia is not exactly my bag of hammers, I’ve only been there once during winter and I retain fond memories of the hotel I holed myself up into. Not because I was dressed slightly inappropriately, although I would not advise anybody to travel that far North without some sort of a hat and a pair of gloves, I just didn’t feel like getting out of my room. We all get slightly anti-social from time to time, I guess.

Filed under: Russia - everyday life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 12:40 pm

Killing Melancholy

August 27, 2008

“St. Petersburg is such a beautiful city, its the Northern Venice!”. Oh, shut up already. You should try St. Pete when rain don’t let up for a week and wind blows most of it into your face with traffic adding that extra bit of water onto your shoe and lower trouser leg…
I feel sad. I know what this is. Its the last week of August and I got the blues. Happens to me every year since I was a child. Something to do with this week being the last week before the new school year starts, I guess.
I know, by mid-September I will be alright again, but meanwhile I need help.
Over the years I found that drugs don’t work (alcohol is a drug too, remember!) - they only make things worse (unless you are a long term user, in this case do not stop using without taking medical advice). In fact, there only two kinds of therapy that work perfectly against the autumn blues syndrome: true love or escape to a geographical dive.

The true love has to be a particular type of girl (or boy if you are a straight female or a homosexual male): she has to have the right sort of eyes. The rest of true love, as far as therapy goes, don’t matter, although it helps if she has a good rear and a nice pair of legs. The eyes have to be blue. Its better if they are larger then your own. The best are slightly cloudy on the surface but should have something like a grainy backdrop deep at the bottom. Look into this pair of eyes for a while and you will feel better. Much better. Perfect.
There are some minor setbacks with the situation though. Girls (or boys) like this are not easily available at this time of year. And you have to give something in return, as its not fair to just take.

For those who are happily married (myself included) or not looking for other relationships it’s the second option: to take a fortnight off and go somewhere else. Somewhere slightly more miserable than you present surroundings.
In this case, for many, St. Petersburg is the ideal travel destination at this time of year.
This kind of therapy is based on the same principal as the idea of watching telly to counter-act a particularly bad day: a cheerful feature might kill you, a horror movie is almost certain to help you to bounce back to life.

I myself, have already booked a flight to Manchester and am looking forward to seeing all the horrible red brick houses of Salford drenched in rain, their residents looking worse for wear, sitting in dingy pubs crying in their pints of bitter. I don’t really know what to do if you are already living in Manchester though. Is it possible to find a place to go where you could sink even lower? Or is it easier to simply kill yourself?

Of course all of the above does not count if you are a dynamic person living an exciting life fulfilled by work, friends and family. In this case you might ask yourself why did you waste time reading all this? Fear not, nobody goes home empty-handed. Take every second word of this post and make a sentence. Repeat the procedure using every third word, then every forth and so on. Take away half of what you got and you will end up with a something that might seem a little nonsensical at first glance but after some digging will turn into a charming post-modernistic poem about a pig dancing in a court-yard. Have fun!

Filed under: Russia - everyday life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 12:41 pm

Boy, Do Mosquitoes Suck!

August 8, 2008

This morning, when I opened my fridge there was a mosquito, chilling out. How they get into my apartment in the first place is beyond me. Mosquito screens on the windows, mosquito detector on the door, mosquito check-ups every hour and yet every night they have themselves a feast and I have itchy patches on my arse.
Still I don’t suffer half as much as does my wife.
Which brings me to the point: I am Russian, she is English, we sleep next to each other, mosquitoes mostly bite her and I get a raincheck.

Do Russian mosquitoes prefer foreign blood over domestic? After all many Russian consumers have passion for foreign brands. Maybe Russian mosquitoes are communists? Many supporters of the old times are still about, you see them now and then gathering around statues of the forefather of Russia’s communist revolution.

Of course, when it comes to Lenin, nothing can beat the Mausoleum. When Solzhenitsin died I was half expecting headlines like “Body of celebrated dissident is set to replace Lenin in Red Square” and such. After all, many streets have gone back to their pre-revolutionary names and the imperial eagle has replaced the hammer and sickle.
However, speculative name changing and the replacement of a relic are not even in the same league, so I guess the swap is never going to stick. And rightfully so. The communist past is an important part of Russian history and a fascinating one at that.
The revolution, the Stalin years and the grim conflict of the Second World War all have inspired many talented architects and sculptors and left behind many landmarks.
When in town, check out Victory Monument on Ploshchad Pobedy. It’s dedicated to the victims of Leningrad’s Siege and the heroic defenders of the city. Sculptures of soldiers, partisans, sailors and workers surround a 48-m high obelisk. There is an underpass leading to the Memorial Hall. Solemn music, subdued lightning and the persistent beat of a metronome create an atmosphere to compliment a display of artifacts that records the war effort of Russian people.

Of all crimes against humanity war has to be the most serious one. Do people like George Bush realize that once they give their troops the go-ahead many sections of the community that are not supposed to be involved in the action will suffer a knock-on effect? These people are not soldiers, they did not sign-up and dying is not part of their job description.

The Siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days and lead to death of 2 million people, half of them civilians. Ost-West Kontaktservice offers an excellent guided tour designed to introduce you to the Museum of the Siege,”Piskarevskoe” Memorial Cemetery and “The Flower of Life” - a particularly disturbing monument as it commemorates the city’s many children who lost their lives during this tragic event.

Filed under: Sightseeing in St. Petersburg
Tags: , , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 5:23 pm

Picking Off Pet Pooches

August 6, 2008

As I was coming out of the off-licence at about ten in the evening a group of dogs passed me and disappeared into the courtyard. I swear one of them sized me up but decided against whatever intentions it had on its mind. The incident left me wondering how long is it going to be before the boundary installed through the years of master/pet relationships will be forgotten and finally crossed.

Tehran had a similar problem in the late 70s. Stray dogs were roaming the streets forming violent packs. At nighttime it was not advised to walk on your own, particularly if you were a small child and could be easily carried off.

Saying all this, I somehow doubt that in Russia they might fail to deal with such a problem in the most efficient way. Likely there wont be any lack of wanna-be hunters willing to come out with their unlicensed rifles to shoot bad dogs and save the world.

In fact I wish they would start now by shooting dog-owners who don’t clean their pet’s mess. This is an outrage. Please, put your hand up if you never stepped into a pile of a dog poo on the pavement. Then you either did not live here long enough or you are a newborn baby and you don’t count.

However filthy the streets of St. Petersburg may be, they are still well worth walking, as many of them are historical sights themselves. A glance at a map reveals that a good attempt was made to bestow the city with an organized layout practically made for easily negotiable walks. In some areas around the centre everything is so close together that getting around on foot is the most rewarding way to explore and appreciate many fascinating architectural and sculptural details.

Citizens of St. Petersburg are fond of walking. On a fine day people of all ages are promenading up and down Nevskiy Prospekt or emerge into the parks and gardens. The Summer Gardens and Mikhaylovskiy Gardens offer excellent recreational opportunities as well as a superb scenery.

If you are looking for a romantic time try Palace Embankment at 2 a.m. during the White Nights. A stroll along the Moika or Griboedov Canal will take you away from the busy traffic of Nevskiy Prospekt and introduce you to some lovely residential areas of the city centre.
Excellent St. Petersburg walking tours in English, German and other languages are bookable anytime through Ost-West Kontaktservice. But please do note: during the high season (between May and September) this ever so popular service best be arranged well in advance.

Filed under: Sightseeing in St. Petersburg
Tags: , , , , , , , , — sasha @ 4:17 pm

Never Talk To Strangers

August 1, 2008

Russian underground network known as the Metro is cheap, reliable and gets you places fast - a bit like Tesco’s own brand lager. It is also crowded, full of the most terrible smells and has the worst light possible - people look hundreds of years old. Soviet engineers were striving to create the most comfortable conditions for passengers and failed miserably, while self-indulgent architects responsible for the Metro luxury interior succeeded and many stations represent significant landmarks.

I know somebody who works for the London underground. He is a keen photographer too. When in St. Petersburg he was well impressed with the Metro. His natural instinct was to draw his camera and take few quick snaps of the inside. A man dressed in a dark uniform came to his side and gently tugged on his sleeve. They talked. At the time I was there trapped in a two-dimensional continuum of the world of used stationery, unable to talk and invisible but able to see and hear everything. The man in a dark uniform said: “You does not have rite to photography. It is illegal. You go to prison!” “Tell ‘im to #&£$-off!” I shouted but to no avail. You see, once they get you talking to them, they may produce all sorts of papers saying it is against the legislation to do whatever you were doing and jail is awaiting you unless you pay a reasonable fine. Which is likely to be all the cash you got on you. The trick is to stay ignorant, not to respond and walk away. But do it with style. It helps if you are physically stronger than your opponent.

Some factual things about the Metro in St. Petersburg:
Its alive between 5.30 in a morning and 12.30 a.m.
It has four lines. They run from the outskirts through the centre. There they all intersect at one of the main stations.
The means of paying are either tokens (good for one journey) or magnetic cards (valid for ten or more journeys). Both purchasable at the station. Once you have paid your fare you may stay on the Metro as long as you need or want. Once you get off, you need to pay again - a bit like in New York.

All signs are in Russian, so are all announcements. To navigate efficiently within the metro get yourself one of network maps displaying the Cyrillic and transliterated names to hand.
Some stations have open platforms and some have concourses with safety doors. These open when the train comes to the platform.
As the train approaches a stop, the name of the station, changes for another line (if any) and the name of the next station will be announced. However, if you don’t speak the language you’re not likely to catch on, its best to keep count of the stops or check against the wall map inside your train car.
Please note, there is an attendant in a form of stern “babushka” sitting in a booth at the bottom of each escalator. You better be on your best behavior mate, or she will yell at you!

That be it for now. Remember to stand clear of the doors.

Filed under: Russia - everyday life, St. Petersburg — Everyday Life
Tags: , , , , , , , — sasha @ 4:54 pm