The Last 20 Days

June 27th, 2010

On my last Saturday in Ukhta (June 5), I went to Irina’s at 10 to sing with her, Natasha, and Valya. At 12 I returned home to put the finishing touches on my packing and to buy food and cut it up before my party started at 2. The party went pretty well. We ate, drank, and sang karaoke quite merrily, and I succeeded in giving away some of my extra stuff to my friends. The rest I left with a note for the dormitory staff to dispose of as they saw fit.

On Sunday, Stas, Oleg, Nikita, and Yulia came to see me off at the train station. They helped me with my bags and stood in the cold rain waving after me as the train left. The train ride itself went fine. Nobody in my compartment drank anything but tea – not even beer. I was with an old man and his granddaughter and another older, very talkative man. I wanted to avoid talking about myself too much and having to answer too many of the same old questions, so I said I was from Latvia and studying at UGTU. They thought that was a bit strange but I guess they bought it, and they only asked a couple questions about Latvia that I was able to answer with generalities, and then I was free to read my Bulgakov.

The week in Cherepovets (June 7-12) was fun and relaxing. The city was pretty much your standard Russian town of about 300,000 people. Its raison d’être is the steel and metals mill, but it is not nearly as polluted as I was warned. I didn’t notice any unpleasant smells or difficulty breathing there. In fact, it was quite green, and the river looked cleaner than Ukhta’s. I stayed in a decent little hotel right around the corner from the youth center where the camp was held. I was at camp from 10 to 5 every day, helping to run lessons and judge competitions and just talking to all the kids in English. The kids were aged about 13 to 17; they were all really nice and well-behaved, and some of them spoke quite good English and had tons of questions. The counselors, who were mostly college students, also had a bunch of questions for me and always invited me out in the evenings, which was really nice. On Thursday I went to a Chinese tea ceremony with Anna, the camp director (who recently returned from a Fulbright semester in Wyoming), Kathryn, an American woman who works with the camp, and a few other women who work at the youth center. It was so enjoyable, the teas were all so rich and delicious, and the conversation so pleasant that three hours flew by in a minute.

St. Petersburg (June 13-21) was a bit stressful due to changes in travel plans, unpredictable weather, and the fact that I had caught a virus at camp that made my stuffed-up head feel like a bowling ball for the first half of my time there. I had a lot of fun, though. I got to see Peter the Great’s summer house there, the Hermitage, the Kunstkamera (300-year-old deformed babies preserved in jars, with such expressive, smushed-up faces!), and many more of the standard and not-so-standard attractions of Petersburg. I also went to Peterhof, and I must admit: though I’ve been to Versailles three times and liked it more and more each time I go, Peterhof unquestionably kicked its ass. See pictures of the fountains. If I ever live in SP, I decided I like Vasilievsky Island the best. It seems cleaner, brighter, and smaller than the mainland. Alisa came in for a couple days, and it was nice to see her and get acquainted with some Princeton grad students through her. I also hung out with Cathy, a Wooster student abroad, and her family on a couple occasions, including the huge Aliye Parusa holiday, which celebrates the Navy school’s graduation, along with all the other graduations of the year. There were an incredible number of people on the street, and though we missed the passing of the red-sailed ship and couldn’t get onto Palace Square, we did walk around a lot, do shots of vodka in a bar while watching the Palace Square concert on TV, and catch some of the awesome fireworks on our way home to bed. That holiday was the main reason of my change in travel plans: I was supposed to have left Friday night, but I decided to stay until Sunday for the holiday, which then got changed to Monday because of train ticket availability. Other advantages of the change were that, instead of hauling my bags alone through 4 cities on my way to Vienna, I would only go through two, and of course, there is tons of stuff to do in Piter! Petersburg seemed a lot less Russian than Ukhta (partly because of all the tourists), but there are always reminders that you’re far from America. One of these was the general disorder and confusion surrounding the holiday, and another came when I saw ribs on the menu at a restaurant and decided to try them out. Unfortunately, they did nothing to cure my nostalgia. The meat was incredibly salty, and the “barbecue sauce” was more like marinara. I guess nobody’s taught the Russians how to make ribs yet.

Monday night I took a train to Vilnius, Lithuania, which both James (Petersburg Fulbrighter) and Alisa recommended to me as the most interesting of the three Baltic capitals. My only companions in my compartment on the train there (the side-bunkers kept to themselves) were a fun, friendly couple in their 50s named Anatolii and Tatiana. They helped me lift my bags, offered me wine, nuts, and cheese, and we talked all evening about the US, Lithuania, and Russia – mostly why Anatolii likes the former two and dislikes Russia. When we arrived, they were invaluable in helping me navigate the stairs at the train station, find the left luggage room, and change money. They even gave me their phone numbers and said that if I’m ever again in Petersburg, I can stay with them.  It was a nice good-bye to Russia to meet such a cool couple and feel so at ease conversing with them.

Vilnius was absolutely adorable. Given the architecture and the abundance of churches, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a Soviet city. In the morning, I went to the Museum of Cinema, Music, and Film, where they seemed shocked that anyone, let alone an American, would come to see them. They were so glad that they gave me a free DVD with Lithuanian folk dance lessons that probably cost much more to make than the 2 lita entrance fee! After lunch, I wanted to visit the Occupation Museum, but it was closed, so I went to the Jewish museum. It was small and consisted basically of panels with information and photographs of the Jewish culture in Vilnius before the wars and, of course, the Holocaust. Even though I’ve studied the Holocaust over and over again in many a German class, the display at this museum was very powerful. It detailed all the steps of oppression while the Jews were put into ghettos and showed documents written by the Nazis calmly listing the thousands of “Jews, Jewesses, and Jewish children” they had killed or taken to camps. Before the war, Vilnius was a center of Jewish thought and philosophy, but over 90% of the city’s Jewish population was killed in WWII.

That night I left on a bus to Warsaw. Lucky me, my seat was broken in such a way that I had to spend the whole night curled forward onto my knees. I was pretty sore when we arrived at 5:30 in the morning, but walking around made me feel a bit more alive. That morning I ate the second sausage McMuffin of my life, and, just like last time, it was in Eastern Europe at 7 AM, right as McDonald’s opened, and I had my backpack with me and used the bathrooms to change my shirt and wash my face. Warsaw was an astonishingly Western city – clean, with good roads, skyscrapers and spacious stores. I had bad luck there with museums being closed for no reason (and one I did get into, the Independence Museum, was kind of lame), but I walked around a lot, ate pierogi, and got a short look at the Chopin Centre, where I could have spent a lot longer than an hour if I hadn’t had a train to catch.

Finally, I took an overnight train from Warsaw to Vienna, and the verdict is I think I like Russian trains better than European ones. Russian trains have the advantage of price, and that they are more communal. I like the openness of platzkart,  I like the table in the middle, the hot water always available for tea, and the plastic bags full of all the culinary necessities that Russians bring with them. Russian platzkart also has more room for luggage. European trains have perhaps more comfortable beds. They are a little softer, but the pillows are smaller and I don’t like the way they incline down towards the wall. The biggest advantage of the European trains, though, is the bathroom. It doesn’t flush waste out onto the tracks, it has seemingly clean toilet paper and soap, and I wasn’t afraid to sit on the toilet or let my pant legs touch the floor as I was changing.

We got to Vienna around 6:30, and I took a taxi to my hotel, stopping at an ATM on the way to get some Euros. After dropping my bags, I wandered up the Donau canal to where it meets the river and back again, stopping a couple times for a snack/breakfast, and then waited for my parents in the hotel. Since then, we’ve been eating well, visiting museums, and generally living it up. More on that later. Anyway, it’s nice to be somewhere where I understand the language again. Written Polish is mostly decipherable, but I definitely can’t speak it, and Lithuanian is even worse. German, however, I can handle, even in its Austrian variant.

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