Monday, May 26, 2014

Signs of Summer in St. Petersburg

  6 Ways to tell Summer has come to the Venice of the North

  1.  The topols start flying! The first really hot day in St. Petersburg, I noticed small white balls of fluff floating through the air all over the place. At first I thought it was coming off of some construction site or truck or someone's clothing, but they were all over the city! Turns out, it's just some tree sex. The seeds of the poplar (тополь) tree are generally released in June or July, but this summer is unusually hot unusually soon.
  2. The tourists come out. I live right next to the Russian Museum and "Arts Square" with several theaters. Everyday there are dozens of tour buses parked out front releasing hundreds of eager tourists in tennis shoes, high socks, and khaki shorts. Just from a visual and auditory scan, most seem to be Chinese, Korean, British, or Scandinavian/Baltic.  
    Pushkin Statue in Arts Square surrounded by poplars
  3.  Food carts everywhere. After working at a food truck for my first year and a half at UVA, I have developed a deep appreciation for meals on wheels. While I haven't yet tried a хот-дог (hot dog) from a cart, I have enjoyed several ice cream treats! I especially enjoy watching the parade of vendors rolling their carts down the streets in the evening at closing time.
  4. Black people appear. Going along the lines of #2, with the influx of tourists, students, and seasonal workers, diversity goes up! During the winter months there is the occasional black person, but they are generally few and far between here in St. P. In January I probably saw one black person every 2 or 3 days and now I'm seeing 3 or 4 each day! (I use the word "black" here to denote people of probable African descent, not in the way Russians use it to refer to people from the Caucasus and Central Asia). 
  5. Skin is revealed. If you come to Russia in the winter or spring, it is easily to be think that Russian women are quite modest in comparison to America. Although it is not unusual to see mini skirts and tights on even the coldest winter day, it is rare to see exposed breasts or shoulders. Until the day the mercury hit 30 degrees Celsius, women were largely wearing light coats and long sleeved shirts. I got intensely stared at for showing my shoulders in April even though the weather was nice that day! I was starting to get scared that women never show their upper half here, but then...BAM Russian women left and right are barely clothed! Of course not everyone dresses revealingly, but shorts shorter than my hand are not uncommon and tank tops abound. I guess the key is waiting until the heat builds to an unbearable level, as close to June 1st as you can push it, and then watch the crowd- you can't be the first one to shed your winter modesty, but once the tide starts it is powerful.
  6. White Nights. Probably the most iconic sign of St. Petersburg summers, white nights is the period of the year from about the end of May to the beginning of July where the sun doesn't or barely sets. Yes, that's right. 2 am and it still looks like 5 pm. There are wonderful things that happen during white nights- crazy all night parties, dozens of festivals and concerts, and a special joy that Russians rarely express. It also makes it really hard to sleep...instead of the sun regulating your body clock and daily routine, you suddenly find it to be 11 pm and you haven't even thought of dinner yet!
    A bridge opening during white nights

If you're visiting St. Petersburg in the summer, check out this Lonely Planet article about what to do to have the quintessential SpB summer experience!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Georgia on my Mind

It has been almost 2 weeks since Kaley and I returned from our trip to Georgia. I have finally decompressed enough to be able to write about our incredible trip and share with all my readers the wonder that is Georgia! I won't write every detail, but I'll try to hit some highlights and then perhaps delve a little deeper in subsequent posts.


Day -1: Istanbul
Day 1-3: Tbilisi
Day 4: Day trip to Mtskheta, evening travel to Kazbegi
Day 5-6: Kazbegi
7: Gori
Day 8-9: Batumi

Istanbul: We left SpB on a sunny Monday afternoon and flew to Istanbul. We met up with our host, C, who we found through Couchsurfing. C met us Taksim Square when it was already dark. We got a quick tour of the Sqaure, saw Golgata Tower, and then ate a delicious dinner of Turkish food at an authentic (a bit grimy) local cafe. Then we treated ourselves to some dessert:
Pistachio ice cream and creamy pudding

Turkish coffee and Turkish delight!
Yes, we read our fortunes in the coffee residue))
We spent a veryyyy short 4 hour night at C's apartment, then got a cheap taxi back to Taksim Square in the morning, caught the shuttle to the airport, and continued on to Georgia <3

Tbilisi: My first impression of Georgia was hot. Hot, humid, lush green hills, and public transportation. We took a bus from the airport which made several stops along the way and quickly filled to the brim with sticky, steamy, hairy, loud Georgians. My 65 liter backpack was pushing me off the tiny bus seat and jamming my knees into the hard plastic in front of me, the rotating selection of old women in the seat next to me provided one direction of interesting people watching, but looking left I saw the beauty of the Georgian capital slowly rise out of rural, forested road. We had absolutely no idea where our bus stop was, but in fact we had no problems as it seemed that everyone else on the bus did! We hadn't said a word to the driver, yet as soon as we reached our stop the driver and several other passengers started shouting "Rustaveli! Metro!" at us, and shuffling us off the crowded vehicle. The owner of our hostel met us at the bus stop and walked us to the hostel, only about 5 minutes but it was so nice to have a personal escort! The hostel was a great experience, making friends with some other Egyptian guests and hanging out with the hostel owners every night.
We hit the highlights of the city: Mtatsminda, Mama Daviti, the Mother of Georgia statue, Narikala, all the gorgeous churches, Dry Bridge Market, strolled Koti Apkhazia street, and pampered ourselves at the sulfur baths in Abanotubani.
At first, to be honest, I felt like Tbilisi was a less  impressive St. Petersburg, like a forgotten Soviet capital sinking into the greenery around it. The longer we were there, however, the more I was able to see the unique character of the city. Tbilisi is not cosmopolitan, it is not fast paced, it is not wild. Instead, it is friendly, personal, intimate, easy, and so beautiful. I loved how you could see the low foothills of the Caucasus rising from almost anywhere in the city, but my favorite part was how small it was! Size-wise, Tbilisi is pretty walkable, though not as much as some other cities (like Prague or Paris). It really feels tiny when you end up running into the same people again and again! There's a pretty solid list of attractions that the tourists cycle through (there were particularly few tourists since we came before peak season), but we also ran into locals more than once! It's so easy to build relationships here- asking directions can lead to a 30 minute walking tour and a chance encounter on the street can lead to a delicious home lunch! This small-town feel continued across the country as we ran into old, and made new, friends everywhere we went!
Tbilisi is also dotted with comfortable cafes and plenty of options to sample local cuisine! Here in St. Petersburg, most Georgian restaurants are on the fancy and pricy side, I was delighted to find that in Georgia, food is incredibly affordable, and even better than Russian imitations. We rolled away stuffed from every meal and rarely spent more than $10 including drinks. There are also plenty of street food options. Tbilisi is a wonderful place to get your footing in Georgia- definitely glad we started there.
View up at the Narikala fortress

Mtskheta: Our last morning in Tbilisi, we woke up and quickly headed out to Didube metro station- Tbilisi's transportation hub. From there you can go practically anywhere in the country or beyond! Here's where reading Georgian or at least Cyrillic will really come in handy as the dozens of buses, marshrutkas, and taxis are marked with their destinations. Clearly identified as tourists by our strange clothing and confused, searching faces, we were quickly surrounded by drivers- "Devushki, where are you going? Batumi? Kutaisi?" We were firm-
"No thank you, Mtskheta"
"Are you sure? Kutaisi is beautiful this time of year, only 10 lari!" they pushed a little bit, but once we insisted our plans were solid once or twice- and here comes my favorite part of Georgia- they stopped trying to sell us and began to help us. Time after time, a driver would lead us to the right bus, lead us to the right driver, send us over to the guy who has a guesthouse in our destination. The "small-town feel" appears here again, as the network of drivers seems to be a sort of brotherhood, where they work together not only for their own profit, but for the benefit of every visitor who stumbles through the exhaust-filled maze of Didube. We never had a single problem with finding the right transportation, and rarely needed to figure out anything on our own. Just wait a minute or so and someone is sure to appear who can help.
Anyway, back to Mtskheta! We headed there on a Marshrutka, about 30 minutes and dirt cheap (I think less than $2). Of course the driver pointed out the city center where we should get off, and we immediately found the enormous, beautiful Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Translated as "Life Giving Pillar"- read it's origin story (with much better pictures than I could take) here. I have seen hundreds of beautiful churches: Spain, France, Austria, Germany, Russia...and I honestly think my favorite of all is Svetitskhoveli. Not the most ornately adorned, not the most flashy, but the most holy, the most steeped in history, I felt the ghosts around us as an almost tangible presence, it was incredible...
We easily found a taxi driver hanging out around the front of the church who agreed to take us up to Jvari Monastery and gave us a mini-tour of Svetitskhoveli as well! The view from the monastery was as spectacular as everyone promised, and I saw my first (certainly not my last) herd of grazing cows on our way up the mountain! 
After Mtskheta we went back to Tbilisi, picked up our bags from the hostel, and said goodbye. Then we headed back to Didube and picked up another marshrutka north to Kazbegi!
Looking down at Mtskheta

Am I missing something or is this really from 1042??

Kazbegi: Hands down my favorite place in Georgia. I even wrote a separate post for Kazbegi here! Quick overview: mountains, snow, hiking, mountains, horses, amazing people, bread, cheese, adorable puppy, mountains. Did I mention mountains? We hiked to less than a km from the Russian border with Ingushetia and rode horses up a mountain to a tiny stone church! Definitely a must-go on any trip to Georgia. We spent 3 nights in Kazbegi and then reluctantly pulled ourselves away to continue our trip.
A little teaser...more in the Kazbegi post!

Gori/Uplitsikhe: From Kazbegi we drove straight south back to Tblisi, the easiest way to get to Gori. Once again we found ourselves at Didube (turned out 4 times in 1 trip!) and easily found a new, air conditioned, seat-belted (rare) mini van headed to Gori. It was only 1 lari more so we opted for a little taste of luxury. The trip was about an hour and a half, and I arrived in Gori admittedly with some of the wind out of my sails after having to leave my Caucasian paradise that morning. Gori being a dirty, forgotten, dust bowl of a town certainly didn't help. Of course the people were extremely outgoing and helpful and some strangers who happened to be near us basically figured out our accommodation for us! Beyond that, though, we got more awkward stares in Gori than any other city, probably because they're least used to tourists (*quick note on the awkward stare: Living in Russia, I'm used to getting stared at for everything from not wearing pantyhose to showing my shoulders too soon in the season, but what I'm calling an "awkward stare" here is one that lasts a little too long, one that you're not really sure where it's coming from, and/or one in which the starer is particularly creepy). The central Shida-Kartli region where Gori is located is drier and flatter than the rest of the country and it was immediately apparent. After dropping off our bags and freshening up at our guesthouse, we headed out to Uplitsikhe. The "bustation" was a cesspool, really nasty place, but we found a taxi willing to take us round trip for a good price. The drive outside the city was nice and idyllic- I saw old couples riding on wagons full of hay being pulled by donkeys! Uplitsikhe itself, an ancient cave city which may date as far back at the 3rd century BC, was neat to explore, but it would have been more engaging with a guide. We returned to Gori and hit the Stalin trail, seeing Stalin Avenue, Stalin Square, the Stalin statue, and of course the Stalin Museum which was mainly pictures of him and his colleagues throughout the years. The tour was good, in fact, not very political and didn't get into the details of his policies, just talked about his cycle of life. After a pick-me-up of Natakhtari (fruit soda) and khinkhali (meat dumplings) we headed back to our guest house for a TERRIBLE night of sleep. I felt every spring in that damn bed and it was too short with a head and foot board so I had to sleep with a bend at my waist so I could straighten my legs and not trigger my restless leg syndrome too badly. Have you ever had to sleep like a BOOMERANG? I get it, I'm taller than the average joe, but honestly- that shouldn't have even qualified as a least our breakfast the next morning was good! Our host fed us homemade (almost everything in Georgia is) fruit khachapuri, cheese khachapuri, plain bread, cheese, and apple jam. So delicious we stashed some leftovers in our bags for later! Then we finally hauled ass out of that place to Batumi.
Just hanging out in ancient cave city

We climbed to the old fortress on a hill (Gori means hill) and were the only ones there apart from the guards! The city was tolerable from this vantage point.

Batumi: Batumi is a fine city. It is definitely a resort town and although it was a little dead while we were there, it's clearly bustling in the summer. From what I read online I had pictured a little strip with some shrimp shacks and a few guesthouses on the coast, but there is actually a downtown with a few skyscrapers, streets with European facades, and cute cobblestoned lanes. Many of the restaurants, buildings, cafes, and shops were under renovation or just closed for the season, but there was still plenty available to us. Some of the highlights: a show at the dolphinarium, a toe-dip in the Black Sea, a chance visit to a girls' dance school, and so much Natakhtari   <3
Dolphin show with city in the background

A section of the port

Now we're home in St. Petersburg and the weather is finally heating up (it's actually really hot, yesterday was 86 F) and I'm still missing Georgia...but it's time to refocus and buckle down to put the last 3 months of my program into Russian-learning overdrive!

Like I said: stay tuned for Kazbegi and more insights on Georgia! Thanks for reading, folks

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Moscow Redux

I awoke to the smell of sausages.

Last time I rode platzkart it was mid-August,  and I was going from Moscow-St Petersburg. The train in fact started its journey somewhere in the south, I think Crimea. So when we boarded in Moscow the bunks were already crowded with hot, sweaty, post-beach vacation passengers who had been riding for 4 days. And my family thought our drive to Nags Head was bad...
But back to the sausages- when I boarded the train in St Peterburg, it smelled, dare I say it, clean! But by this morning I could sense the stench building, starting with a nice thick layer of breakfast sausage. 

Then we arrived in Moscow!
The SRAS  Moscow director met us at the train station and we went straight to our hostel. Our room wasn't ready yet, so we dropped our bags in the front hallway of the renovated apartment, quickly changed shoes and shirts from grungy train to Moscow chic (or American college student comfort), and set out into the city. First we ate- I wasn't very hungry since Tatiana sent me on the train with plenty of snacks, but I tried some pancake-looking "alinga"s, made extra thick and hardened with kefir, and they were delicious. After breakfast, we saw the Tretyakov Gallery, Bolshoi Theater, Christ the Savior church from a distance, several of the 7 Sisters were pointed out, and then we breezed through Red Square (full tour will come tomorrow), upscale shopping center GUM, and got some lunch at a very airport-esque sandwich restaurant. Afterwards, I decided my self esteem was too high, so I ate an entire, I'm not proud of that, yes I hated myself for the next few hours, yes I wanted to throw up all day, and yes it WAS delicious. 
When we got back to the hostel I took a shower (surprisingly nice) and we all veged out for a couple hours, exhausted from the train ride and walking tour. 

And then came the evening... what an adventure! After all the other peeps slept and I watched Game of Thrones we decided to go find some food. Nothing particular in mind, we wandered the city for a few blocks. Suddenly in the distance we saw lights swirling. As we approached, it became clear that there were several young people spinning fire. Yes, you read that right, FIRE. There were sticks with fire on both ends, swinging chains with fire on the end, fan-type things with fire on the was incredibly cool! One guy was breathing fire, and one girl was doing dance and acrobatic moves along her fire swinging. We watched for a while, cheering them on, then we found a really cool looking American style diner that the Moscow SRAS director had mentioned earlier. As soon as we saw it, we started dreaming of cheeseburgers and milkshakes and dove in! The food was delicious, and the milkshakes really hit the spot. Then we hit a snag- one of our students is allergic to peanuts, and one of our students ordered a peanut butter milkshake. Of course, there was a mix up...Tim, with the peanut allergy, took a sip of the milkshake and froze. His allergy isn't bad, so we finished our meal and then went in search of a pharmacy for some Benadryl. Armed with 3 or 4 translations and generic names, we began to look for a 24 hour pharmacy since it was past 11. 
All over the city we ran, here and there, back and forth, down streets and alleys and EVERY apteka we found was closed. After about half an hour of walking, we stumbled upon a bigger street lined with plenty of aptekas. Finally we found an open one, and gleefully ran inside. Here another problem arose- the pharmacist was not giving Tim what he wanted. We struggled for a while until finally a Russian  bystander decided to get involved. He asked me what the problem was, and then dragged Tim by the arm down the street to a different pharmacy. Once Tim's life was no longer in danger, this good-Samaritan asked us all to walk with him for a bit- so we did! Very spontaneously, we strolled through Moscow until around 1am with our new friend chatting about everything: Moscow vs Petersburg, Russian language, America, the metro! It was a great night.

The rest of our trip to Moscow was less eventful. We saw Lenin's tomb which was honestly very unsettling. I suppose it was good to see once but I wouldn't do it again, it was quite sad. We did the typical Red Square thing and then toured an old Soviet nuclear bunker and that was pretty cool! Then home to Piter for a few days before preparing for...GEORGIA! 

Actually I'm finishing this blog from Kazbegi, Georgia. Lots of great things happened between Moscow and Georgia including Easter, buying roller blades, seeing a camel in Kronstadt, and seeing the Ataman Cossack ensemble perform (might have to write a separate blog post for that- very weird). I wrote this 80% from Moscow and felt it needed to be finished, but now I'll post it and get it out of my system so I can go on and write about Georgia- coming soon!