As I have been extraordinarily negligent in contributing to this great enterprise, and as I am assured that we have an audience waiting with bated breath for tales of our adventures in Leningrad, I offer this belated blog post from an Internet cafe in scenic Chang Mai, Thailand.
We arrived in “Leningrad” (so called in this post because many of the city’s residents have yet to take to Leningrad’s return to its historic name of St. Petersburg) at the unholy hour of 6:00 A.M. on September 22. We had just completed an all-night journey on a comfortable sleeper train from Moscow. Our plan — for thanks to Anna we did have a plan — was to stay with friends of Anna’s, but we did not want to show up on their doorstep at such an early hour so we had some time to kill. We quickly resolved to find a coffee shop or Internet cafe near the place we would be staying, and we felt assured of success as there is no shortage of such establishments in Leningrad. We were initially turned away from a 24-hour coffee place because, though open 24 hours, from midnight until seven a.m., one had to take his coffee outside. At least this is what they claimed — maybe they just did not like the looks of us. And, though the weather was temperate for a September in Russia, we were not terribly excited by the prospect of huddling outside with our coffees until given the green light to drink inside so on we moved.
A few doors down we encountered a coffee place that was just openning its doors and were please to find that we could use the wireless Internet. Actually, I was most pleased to discover yet another coffee shop with surprisingly good green tea. Overall, one of my favorite things about Russian culture is the deep appreciation the people have for green tea. I had not previously found such enthusiasm outside of Asia (or, occasionally, in Los Angeles). In addition to my many cups of green tea, I managed to consume a couple of pancakes made complete with a helping scoop of ice cream and some chocolate sauce. I don’t know what the dish is called in Russian, but I called it breakfast, and it was delicious.
When it seemed reasonable, our merry band proceeded over to the home of Anna’s friend. I should take a moment to explain how incredible it was for Anna to have hooked us up with a free stay with her friend. Leningrad has incredibly expensive hotels and there are very few mid-range or budget-range options available. I had resigned myself to paying up to $300 per night for accommodation. Somehow, however, Anna managed to convince her friend Olga to allow these two strangers into her house. Anna, of course, was staying at home with her uncle and aunt so the plan was for Ben and I to stay with the family without Anna for the full four nights of our visit. And not only did the family not seem put out by our presence, by the end of our stay, Ben and I were being treated as if we were old friends. Olga is a translator who speaks perfect English. Her husband, Emmanuel, is French and works as a press attache for the French government. The couple also have a five-year son, Vasily, who was initially, rightfully, wary of our intrusive presence. Fortunately, Olga quickly informed us that the key to his heart are sweets, and we were soon honored guests in his eyes so long as we produced a chocolate bar every now and then. Our welcome was made all the more amazing by the fact that we came to stay with Olga’s family at the worst possible moment — she was scheduled to give birth any day. Indeed, she had a baby boy very soon after we left.
Introductions made, I did what I usually do when I arrive in a new city — I took a long nap. Anna and Ben, both with an unhealthy aversion to napping, went off to explore the city. We met back up in a few hours so as to join Olga for lunch. The lunch was excellent, but the restaurant was more notable for its appearance. I was convinced we were in the wrong place when we arrived because the shop’s main source of income clearly came not from food but from the sale of clothing and plants.
Speaking of food, and I believe Ben alluded to it, but I want to emphasize how good the food in Russia is — even for a finicky meatatarian like myself. Many of the staple dishes are happily basic and primarily consist of a well-seasoned meat and a starch. My favorite had to be the meat skewers and meat pies that are available in restaurants and street corners everywhere. Anna’s heart seemed to lie with the ice cream, which, incredibly, is a year-round Russian obsession. Ben, meanwhile, was largely preoccupied with the various fish dishes. In addition to the food, many restaurants also had these fantastic fresh-pressed juices that complimented everything. I was particularly fond of the apple juices.
After lunch, Anna left us to visit with her family until the following day. She did so with some apprehension that we would not be able to get around without her, but the subway system was excellent and most of the key signs were in English, which was not the case in Moscow. We did not have any problems. Anna suggested that we go to the ballet and so that is what we did. We saw a love story of some type. I was not particularly moved but the theater was incredible, and I am told the dancers were exceptionally good. Olga was a little distressed that we were not going out in formal attire as theater in Russia is a rather stuffy affair, but unfortunately neither Ben or I had packed anything even coming close to respectable. For better or worse, there were a number of similarly shabbily dressed foreigners in the audience so we did not stand out too much. After the ballet, we went to a dinner highlighted by my guide book, and apparently we were not alone in taking the guidebook’s recommendation as Ben and I noted the same guidebook on the tables of a number of the other diners.
The next morning Ben and I did a little walking tour of Leningrad. The highlight was one of the world’s great museums, the Hermitage. Housed in a former palace, the Hermitage contains an incredible array of works. So many that it is said that one could in a lifespan only devote one minute to each work of art. As I so often find with mammoth museums, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the works on display and would have tuned out completely were it not for the helpful audio guide we purchased in an effort to focus our exploration of the museum. And even more than the individual works, the building itself is one of the most impressive I have ever seen. Much like the works housed at the Getty in Los Angeles, I felt that the works of art were done something of a disservice by the immense beauty of the building in which they were contained as it was hard to concentrate on anything other than the architecture.
Our walk around Leningrad also took us past some of the other stunning architecture the city has to offer, which includes a number of very colorful churches. Our tour ended at the Pushkin cafe, so named in honor of Russia’s great poet, the Afro-Russian author Alexander Pushkin. Long one of my favorite writers, it was a great pleasure to learn a little more about his life. Another one of my favorite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky, also made Leningrad his home, and we were also able to see some landmarks associated with him. Happy and exhausted we made our way home via the city’s impressive subvway system. In my opinion, only the D.C. Metro rivals the Moscow and Lenningrad underground transit system in terms of the grandeur of the stations, its efficiency, and the impeccable cleanliness of the trains.
That night, Anna met back up with us, and we went out to meet up with another friend of Anna’s. Olga and family had retreated for the weekend to their dacha, which is a weekend house of sorts. All Russians were assigned a city apartment and a dacha during the communist days, and ownership of both went to the current tenants after the most recent capitalist revolution.
We went to a communist-flavored bar for dinner, which was recommended by Anna’s friend, also named Anna. Anna 2 was very spirited, and we had a great time drinking vodka and speaking with our Anna mostly serving as translator. Once we decided to part, Anna and I headed out for a nightclub and Ben went back to the apartment to call it the night. The nightclub, one of the best I have been to, exceeded all of my meager expectations. Decked out in the typical European style (lots of lights, mirrors), our entrance fee included a number of things I had never seen before. First, we were treated to something closely resembling a variety show, which involved singing (incredible singing — this woman would have won American idol were she, you know, American), dancing, and very lively audience participation. After the hour-long show was over, and when I thought it could not get any better, we we were treated to a dance experience like no other. Much to our surprise, the dance floor began to spin, rain/snow began to fall from the ceiling, and — at exactly the right moment — the dance floor would bounce up and down to the beat of the song. Unbelievable. Awesome. That experience has surely ruined for me all future nightclub outings.
The next morning we set out by boat for an area not far from Leningrad to see another magnificent palace. This one was a “summer” palace commissioned by Catherine the Great. It was fantastic to just walk around the grounds and bask in yet another ridiculously beautiful, sunny day. We ate meat pies, drank beer, and were just generally thrilled to be in such a fantastic setting.
We took the boat back to Leningrad and then made for another boat tour of the many rivers running through the city. Lenningrad — a relatively young European city — was initially conceived to resemble the canal-laced Netherlands capitol city of Amsterdam because Lenningrad was so water-logged, a swamp really. They did a great job of it; going along the various canals was a great time as the city looked incredible when lit up at night and you would have little idea that it was nothing more than swampland only a few hundred years earlier. We ended the evening with a Georgian dinner with our newly-returned hosts. The Georgians are not favored by most Russians, and I was amazed that a people with such great food could be viewed with so much contempt.
Our last full day in Leningrad — and Russia generally — was Monday, and I had been looking forward to this day more than any other for we were going our to Anna’s grandparents’ house for a dinner. Anna is, without equivocation, the greatest cook I have ever had the great pleasure to encounter (sorry mom). Much of her talent she laid at the feet of her grandfather so I was awed by the prospect of meeting this magical man. Unfortunately, before we could make it out for our visit, Ben and I had a little bit of unpleasantness to deal with it. To be a tourist in Russia, one must make efforts to register at every place one stays lest they be subject to harassment, fines, and possible detention when attempting to leave the country. Because Ben and I were not staying in a hotel, this was going to be no easy task and after a great deal of effort expended and no luck, we decided to just hope that all went well as we left the country. We hoped, at worst, we would be subject only to a fine. And, moreover, it was time to go off to dinner at the Makanju household, and we were not going to let anything get in the way of that.
The dinner did not disappoint. Anna had designed a menu (can you believe it) with her grandparents meant to comport to the rather challenging dietary restrictions posed by Ben and I. Anna’s grandfather was expansive and funny. Anna’s grandmother was, well, grandmotherly. Warm and kind and inviting, she made us feel right at home and then disappeared so as to better facilitate our drinking great vodka with Anna’s grandfather. We ate too many things to try to list here but all of my new Russian favorites were on the menu — i.e. skewers of meet, meat pies, deliciously prepared starches, and homemade juice. We sat around for hours and traded stories and learned a little more about our friend Anna. It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.
Having to be at the airport in a few hours, Ben and I parted with heavy regret that our trip would be soon coming to an end. We were also bummed because we knew we would not see Anna again until the flight over to Thailand. Incredibly, we returned to the apartment and found ourselves in the midst of an international dinner party being hosted with ease by the now-really-ready-to-pop Olga. That woman amazes me. Once the party broke up around one a.m., we prepared to head for the airport and again expressed our significant gratitude to our new friends for allowing us to take up so much of their time and apartment space.
That is about it. We went to the airport. We waited. We were anxious about what our immigration experience would entail. We sailed through immigration (stamp, stamp, next). Our plane arrived in London on time, and everything was easy. I would not have done it without Anna serving as guide, but I definitely saw enough of Russia, and especially Lenningrad, to make me want to return for more.
That’s all for now. Apologies to all of you who have sent messages to me while I have been traveling. I will be writing back (promise!). And, hopefully, in the next few days I will find time to post both about the fantastic time had at the wedding of my two law school classmates, Jeff Goldman and Abby Greene, as well as the great time I had drinking scotch with J-File and Amy G. on the small, luxurious island of Islay. I will also try to post some of the fruits of my foray into the world of digital SLR cameras.
I know I said I wouldn’t blog about Russia, as I did not want any perceprtion of bias, particularly where the breathtakingly beautiful Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and the virtually uninhabitable Moscow are concerned. So this is not really a post, more of note.
Moscow did nothing to redeem itself in my eyes when I had to spend days (including, I am not kidding, an all-nighter) looking for a room under 800 dollars. Though I eventually succeeded and even sort of enjoyed the sunny days wandering around Moskva (the weather was amazing the entire time Brian and Ben were here in Russia, and got cold and rainy the second they left,) I was very happy to get back to the other capital. But Moscow does have one great feature – it’s amazing metro:
Metro station Partizanskaya, dedicated to the civilians who fought in WWII.
P.S. While I am not one to defend anything Moscow, I have to take issue with Ben’s characterization of some of the world’s most opulent treasures from the Kremlin armoury as “pretty baubles.” I mean, at the time one of those pearl and diamond encrusted robes could buy you a dozen villages of indentures servants.
P.P.S. How can I not love Pushkin desserts?
Brian and I arrived in Moscow on the 19th and Anna bravely picked us up from Domodedovo Airport at 2 a.m. After moving through passport control, we made it to the hotel, where we took part in a welcoming Russian tradition– a delightful taste of vodka.
Waking up on the 19th, we took a taxi into Moscow and, after dropping off our bags, had lunch at Yoki Palki, a Russian chain restaurant where we ate meat on a stick. We then headed to the famous Red Square, where we saw, among other things, St. Basil’s Cathederal. After walking aorund the Red Square for a bit, Anna and I took a brisk walk along the Moskva River, while Brian checked his email and read Perez Hilton.
One of Anna’s friends from law school, who now lives in Moscow, took us out for the evening to a great restaurant in Arbat where Brian and I drank delicious unfiltered Czech beers and Anna had a very petite $16 vino. We then retired to the wonderful appartment, which Anna found for us. (Anna will add more about her tireless apartment search efforts later!)
The next morning we took a great tour of the Kremlin, the sight from which Ivan the
Terrible orchestrated his terror; Napoleon watched Moscow burn; Lenin
fashioned the proletariat dictatorship; Stalin launched the purges;
Krushchev fought the Cold War; Gorbachev brought perestroika; and
Yeltsin concoted “New Russia”. The tour was fascinating. We also saw Faberge Eggs and quite a few pretty baubles in the Kremlin Armoury.
A highlight: We had a great dinner at Cafe Pushkin. [Brian says: Yes! The Russian dumplings– Pelmeni– were del-icious!] [Anna: I love everything Pushkin, especially the desserts!]
The following day, on the 21st, we took a great city tour of Moscow, visiting all the big sights. We then headed to the Izmailovo market, anopen air market packed with knicknacks, a number of which we purchased.
Today, we’ve just arrived in St. Pete’s on the overnight train from Moscow. We shared our 4-person sleeping car with a nice chap from the Russian army who was returning from a parachuting competition near Moscow where he took 4th place. Though he spoke no English, we enjoyed drinking Vodka with him as he taught us Russian army card games.
More on Russia, the Russian people, and St. Petersburg to come!