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These, it seems, are the only things we need anymore that St. Petersburg doesn’t have, if my Helsinki grocery purchases are to be analyzed. St. Petersburg itself needs a lot of things that Helsinki has, but that’s a tired old story.
Yesterday I changed my plan to go to a movie in favor of a Public Transportation Adventure. I bought myself a day pass and rode Helsinki’s single(though forking)-line metro to one end of the fork, then back to the base of the fork, then down the other side of the fork, then back to downtown. I had planned to get out at a random stop and look around, but was delighted to find out that once you get out of downtown the metro goes above ground, so I was content to just look out the window. I bought a “Yankie” candy bar from a vending machine because I found the name amusing. (Thank goodness it didn’t involve black licorice, the one problem with Scandinavian culture.) It was kind of like a Milky Way with chewier nougat.
Getting back to downtown, I took a tram through a part of town I’d never been to before. Looking at how close-together the streets appeared on the map, I’d envisioned some cozy little historic neigborhoods, but actually it was a very modern business district.
Oh, and I got my new Russian visa without incident. If you’re getting a Russian visa in Helsinki, use the visa service at Russian Tours. Their fee is only 10 euros if you have your own invitation, and they are very nice and organized and they do all the standing in line and dealing with the gruff bureaucrats for you, which is soooo worth 10 euros. (If I may be allowed to sound like a spoiled brat for a moment.)
I’m in Helsinki again, briefly, to get a new Russian visa, and I would just like to make a plug for Jaffa orange soda, the best soft drink ever.
I would also like to recommend that if you’re looking for a youth hostel in Helsinki, you stay in Eurohostel, which is where I stayed last time, and not Satakuntatalo, where I am now. The latter is cheaper and includes breakfast, but isn’t nearly as nice.
On the train from St. Petersburg yesterday, there was a Spanish man, about 60 years old, whom I overheard saying that Russians are not very friendly. “They are the most strange people I have saw in my life!” I wasn’t sure who he was talking to. Later, I heard him say, “I am sorry, what I said before,” and went on to tell a story about a Cuban guy he knows who is married to a Russian woman and imports Spanish furniture to Moscow. As he was getting off the train a Russian man about the same age was helping him with his bag, so I guess they patched up their disagreement about the friendliness of Russians.
… figure skate, sing in front of other people even if they’re not in a rock band, and enjoy opera and ballet, among other things that make the average straight American man fear he’ll be seen as effeminate.
Which is not to say that straight men don’t do these things in the US, but doing them can call an individual’s sexuality into question. And boys who do these things are likely to get their ass kicked at school. Which is sad.
The flip side is that Russia is super homophobic. But this is supposed to be one of the things I LIKE about Russia, so I’ll just say that I think it’s great that men are allowed to enjoy a wider range of interests than just sports.
All right readers, I need your help with something. One of my tasks in preparation for the kids’ arrival at the kindergarten is to develop a list of games to teach the kids. I’m talking about “Ring-around-the-rosy”-type games, which aren’t competitive and involve a song or a poem.
So those of you who grew up speaking English, remind me of or introduce me to your favorite childhood song-games. Jump-rope chants and hand-clapping games are good too.
For those of you planning to travel to Russia, or those Russophiles who just like imagining what life is like here, here is a list of things which I keep in my bag at all times when I am out and about that I wouldn’t usually carry in the US:
1. Pocket Russian-English Dictionary. I use it less and less, but it’s still good to have on hand.
2. Small Packet of Tissues. It is true that public toilets do not always have toilet paper.
3. Hand Sanitizer. Public toilets do not always have soap. Also, I work with little kids and those snot-nosed brats got me sick a million times last winter/spring.
3. Plastic Shopping Bag. Bringing your own can save you like five whole rubles at a shop, but additionally, sometimes you wind up buying something from a street vendor or babushka who doesn’t have bags at all. Also, here it looks much more normal to carry a smaller shoulder bag and then a shopping bag for extras rather than a huge-ish backpack like I did in the US.
4. Copy of Passport/Visa. It’s a good idea to have some ID on you, but you don’t want to risk getting your actual passport stolen. In a lot of cases a copy is sufficient because the currency exchange/train ticket agent/whoever only needs to punch your passport number into a computer.
5. Transit Map. I have a fabulous map that shows all the metro stations and bus, tram, trolley and marshrutka routes. It is incredibly helpful when I need to go to a new place on the spur of the moment, or for Public Transportation Adventures.
Small Umbrella. You never know when it’s going to rain. I got a great umbrella that folds up super small for only 100 rubles.
Reading Material. Waiting is a part of Russian life, so kill time productively. Also good for those four-minute Metro escalator rides.
Sunglasses. In the summertime at least. The sun is low in the sky here and can be pretty intense.
This sounds like a lot of stuff, but it all fits in a reasonably-sized, stylish (if I do say so myself) shoulder bag.
My family and close friends know that I’ve been obsessed with hedgehogs since I received a certain stuffed animal for Christmas when I was six. But hedgehogs aren’t native to North America, and so I could only look at pictures and collect hedgehog-themed crap.
Kostia promised me that there were hundreds of hedghogs in the village where his country house is, but they must be having a rough summer, because I’ve been there twice now and haven’t seen any yet.
However! On the way back from the country, we stopped by his best friend’s parents’ house, and his best friend’s brother had recently caught a hedgehog. So, at last, I got to hold one. It was as cute as I could have hoped, as you can see:
Plenty of non-Russians seem to know the Russian word “dacha”. Only, it evokes an image of a fancy house in the countryside for government elites. This notion is reinforced in the US by the fact that only the super-rich own more than one dwelling. One imagines summer houses in the Hamptons and the like.
Of course, there are fancy dachas for government elites, but lots of ordinary people have dachas too, and they’re usually quite simple and devoid of conveniences like indoor plumbing. A dacha provides apartment-dwellers the opportunity to get out of the city to relax, breathe fresh air, and commune with nature. People grow vegetables and gather berries and mushrooms at their dachas, sometimes out of financial necessity.
Spending a weekend or a week or a month or the whole summer at the dacha is an important part of Russian culture. I’ve read that more than 50% of Petersburgers leave the city for some part of the summer. Returning to work this week, my co-workers and I have been comparing notes on what we did this summer. A few people traveled, but most everyone is saying, “Oh, I went to the dacha”, with a satisfied, dreamy smile and a healthy glow.
In a very polluted city, I think dacha culture is one of the nicest and healthiest Russian traditions. And tomorrow, I’m off to the dacha for the weekend!
Home again, in St. Petersburg. I did not get sick on the plane, unless you count getting a little teary-eyed watching a really cheesy romantic comedy, which surely must count as some kind of illness.
My parting American Moment was the United Airlines ticket agent who checked me in for my flight:
Agent: Where are you going today?
Me: Frankfurt to St. Petersburg.
Agent: Oooh, St. Petersburg. Is it winter there now?
Agent: I thought they had opposite seasons from us.
Me: Um, it’s in the northern hemisphere.
Agent (looking thoughtful, in the sort of way one does when one knows one has said something stupid but doesn’t understand why): Oh yeah, I guess that’s right.
It feels like my two and a half weeks in the US were much longer somehow. I’m noticing things about St. Petersburg to which I thought I was long accustomed — certain smells (not all bad!), the way people look, etc. But in other ways, it’s just normality. I like St. Petersburg’s metro better than Washington’s and it was nice to get on it and go to work yesterday morning.
Yes, back to work at the kindergarten. The kids come back on September 1st, so the teachers and other staff are cleaning and organizing our classrooms. Yesterday I was cleaning a window when one of the staff asked me whether I cleaned windows at home. At first I thought she was dissing on my cleaning job, but then I realized she thought that as an American I’d never had to do any dirty work. I assured her that I had.
It’s good to be starting a new year at the kindergarten. Last year I started in the middle, and never got to know most of the staff and teachers other than the ones I was working with in the same classroom. Now we get to be sort of leisurely and eat lunch together and stuff. It’s fun getting to know people like Johannes, a teacher originally from South Africa, who speaks really great Russlish, saying things like “Well, and how?”, a directly translated phrase which means “How’s it going?”