Well, not quite the first full week of 2008, but almost.

We rang in the new year in Kostia’s hometown, Slantsy. Our friends Vadik, Elya, Eugene and Polina joined us. I’ve re-added the Flickr application so you can look at the photo album if you like. Check out the sidebar.

I mentioned that I wasn’t able to find a pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern the weekend before Halloween, the last time I was in Slantsy. Kostia’s parents, not fully understanding that this is a seasonal thing, somehow found me a pumpkin before New Year. It was blue and very nicely shaped. So I carved some stars in it and we had a very lovely new year lantern.

new-year-pumpkin.jpg

We came back from Slantsy on the 2nd. On the 3rd I came down with a nasty cold, the second in 4 weeks. Ugh, I’ll be really happy to get back to Sweden, where I didn’t get sick for 10 whole months.

Yesterday I took the train to Helsinki and back. Twelve hours on the train, two hours in the city. Why, you ask? Foreigners in Russia have to register their residence, and my registration had lapsed. After some fussing and failing to get certain bureaucrats to do their job and extend the registration, Kostia and I decided that the easiest thing would be for me just to leave the country and come back and re-register. I gave some thought to doing something different, like visiting Tallinn or Kiev, but I wasn’t really in the mood for mid-winter tourism and visiting unfamiliar cities alone. I mean, sometimes I am in such a mood, but not right now. 

I decided the Helsinki train was the easiest and most comfortable way of getting out of Russia and back in, albeit not the cheapest. It was made less cheap by the fact that there were no second class seats available on the return train that I wanted to take and so I wound up getting a bed in a sleeping compartment. The price difference wasn’t that great, anyway – only 250 rubles, or $10. At first I thought this was such a waste and wondered why they even had sleeping cars on a day train. Well, let me tell you. After the six-hour ride sitting in a normal train seat in the morning, it was incredibly nice and luxurious to have a bed to stretch out in. I relaxed, read the paper, had the car’s service person bring me a cup of tea (in a glass with silver holder in the Russian style), napped and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Next time I go to Helsinki from St. Petersburg I will totally spend the extra ten bucks on the sleeping car.

During my two hours in Helsinki I visited the big department store, Stockmann, which was jam-packed with people, many of them Russian (Kostia reminded me of the joke that Helsinki is St. Petersburg’s biggest shopping mall, though now there may well be some malls in St. Petersburg which have more shops than downtown Helsinki), going crazy over the post-Christmas sales. I only bought some salty licorice flavored candy on request of one of Kostia’s friends, although I still can’t believe that anyone not raised in Scandinavia can actually stand that stuff. 

I also went to the post office to mail a few packages. After my last experience in a Russian post office (when I tried to send my Christmas packages to the U.S., failed miserably after 2.5 hours of waiting in line, broke down sobbing and wound up being rescued by Kostia, who made the one-hour trip from our apartment to central St. Petersburg just to get me out of there and very kindly sent the packages himself from a branch office the next day), I thought going to the post office in Helsinki would be a wise use of my time there. 

I wasn’t wrong. The main Helsinki post office, in contrast to the St. Petersburg one, is conveniently located, clean and well-lit; does not reek of cat pee; does not have different windows for each different function staffed by people capable of doing only one function, windows which are, furthermore, not even accurately labelled so you have to wait in line for hours only to find that you waited in the wrong one; has helpful, friendly, efficient, multilingual staff who do not just go on a 1-2 hour lunch break with no replacement, leaving everyone waiting in line until they come back; has a take-a-number system that works; did not require me to weigh and itemize every single item in every package and fill out a customs form in quadruplicate; and allowed me to actually pack my own packages. Furthermore, they had Moomin packing boxes for sale (which I purchased), as well as very stylish Marimekko ones (which I didn’t purchase, but thoroughly admired). Ah, western civilization.

I had been slightly concerned that I would have trouble re-entering Russia because they recently changed the business visa rules, and although visas issued before the change are supposed to go by the old rules, you never know when a Russian bureaucrat will just decide to be a sadist. I had brought with me my backpack and a small suitcase filled with all the things I can’t live without for more than a few days, in case they wouldn’t let me back in the country and I wound up having to go to Sweden early to wait for Kostia (although the Swedish Migration Service still hasn’t got round to processing our residence permit applications). But, there were no problems at the border, and after another trip to the post office of my nightmares this afternoon, I am now legally registered in Russia again.

And that is 2008 thus far.